June 21st, 2024

Canadian swimmer Maggie Mac Neil makes Pan Am Games history with fifth gold medal

By Donna Spencer, The Canadian Press on October 25, 2023.

Canada's Maggie Mac Neil prepares to enter the water in the women's 50m freestyle swim event at the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

SANTIAGO – Maggie Mac Neil hit the motherlode in Santiago, Chile.

The swimmer’s fifth gold medal Wednesday was the most by a Canadian athlete at a single Pan American Games.

The 23-year-old from London, Ont., swam the butterfly leg to help the Canadian women take the 4×100-metre medley relay on the final night of swimming.

Mac Neil was also a gold medallist in the women’s 100 butterfly, 100 and 50 freestyle and 4×100 freestyle relay.

Her fifth trip to the top of the Pan Am podium surpassed the four gold by swimmer Jessica Deglau (1999), table tennis player Lijuan Geng (1995) and gymnast Ernestine Russell-Carter (1959).

“It means so much,” Mac Neil said minutes after emerging from the Centro Acuatico pool with relay teammates Danielle Hanus, Rachel Nicol and Mary-Sophie Harvey.

Mac Neil also raced for mixed relay teams that won silver and bronze medals.

She and Harvey each earned seven medals in Santiago, which is the most by a Canadian woman at a Pan Am Games.

Deglau and swimmers Marianne Limpert and Joanne Malar (1995) and Ralph Hutton (1967) each won six.

“We’re pretty good at swimming throughout history and the fact I was able to do that is pretty special,” Mac Neil said.

Gymnast Wilhelm Weiler won eight medals for Canada in 1963 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Canadian swimmers amassed 25 medals in total in Santiago with 11 gold, the most at a Pan Ams held outside Canada.

The United States led at the pool with 46 medals and 19 gold.

Mac Neil pulled Canada from second into the lead on her butterfly leg for Harvey to bring home the gold in the relay.

Mac Neil, Harvey of Trois-Rivieres, Que., Hanus of Newmarket, Ont., and Nicol of Lethbridge, Ont., beat runner-up United States by just over half a second.

Also in Wednesday’s five-medal final, Canadian women finished one-two in the 200 individual medley. Sydney Pickrem of Halifax claimed her second medley gold ahead of silver medallist Harvey.

Harvey’s meet included three gold, two silver and two bronze.

After winning the men’s 200 individual medley, Finley Knox of Okotoks, Alta., joined Toronto’s Javier Acevedo, Gabriel Mastromatteo of Kenora, Ont., and Saskatoon’s Blake Tierney in a bronze-medal effort in the medley relay.

Mac Neil didn’t taper to peak for the Pan Ams. She raced in a World Cup in Athens, Greece, less than a week out from Santiago’s opening ceremonies.

But she started strong on opening night when Mac Neil swam Canada’s third leg of the 4×100 freestyle relay.

The reigning Olympic champion in the women’s 100 butterfly then claimed gold in that distance Sunday in Pan Am Games record time.

Her hopes and expectations met in her signature event, Mac Neil then went to work in individual freestyle races, which are important to her because of relays.

She claimed gold in both the 100 and 50 – tying with American Gabi Albiero in the latter – on back-to-back nights in Santiago.

“Once the 100 fly was over, I really wanted that title and that was the only thing I was really thinking going into the meet,” Mac Neil said. “Because it was my first time swimming freestyle internationally, I felt relaxed anyway. I had nothing really to lose.

“It was a lot of racing for me, but it’s always good practice, especially this early on in the season.”

Mac Neil was among the Canadian women who won an Olympic silver medal in the 4×100 freestyle relay as well as a medley bronze in Tokyo two years ago.

She wants to maintain her freestyle strength for the 2024 Summer Games relays.

“I want to be able to step up for them and hopefully we get another medal in Paris,” Mac Neil said.

Her Olympic debut in Tokyo felt sterile and locked down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mac Neil wanted to compete in Santiago as a dress rehearsal for a more hectic environment in Paris.

“The first thing is that it’s a Games environment and we didn’t really get much of that in Tokyo,” she said.

“So just practising kind of the uncontrollables, whether that’s food, a lot of walking, transportation mishaps, it’s all kind of part of the process and getting ready for what’s coming in Paris.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 25, 2023.

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