The Sandwell Aquatics Centre, tucked away in a leafy lane in Smethwick on Saturday night with a series of swimming finals, is a tiny glimpse of how closed the pool was at the Commonwealth Games. India’s Srihari Nataraj attempts the first 50m of the 100m backstroke, swimming on lane 1 but fading in the last 30. Pristine waters with the crowd getting high five swimming champions and a very white dominated list of winners. Swimming remains a western world preserve of the wealthy nation in the Commonwealth more than any other sport on the schedule. Together, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, England, Scotland and Wales have won 1,721 swimming medals at the CWG. Apart from the 30 in South Africa, Papua New Guinea, Jamaica (6), Kenya, Zimbabwe, India, the Isle of Man, Trinidad, Guyana, Singapore, Malaysia and the Bahamas only have 19.
In this amazingly unequal racial representation for a core sport, charming Canadian Margaret MacNeil, a frequent flier, takes to the podium, brightening up the arena with her willing, infectious smile behind her hard-working glasses.
Nathan White, communications manager at Canadian Swimming, informs that alongside her amazing swimming talents – she is the 100m butterfly Olympic gold medalist at the Tokyo 2020 games and 2019 world champion – Maggie Mac Neil is also a bright mind as she shares her Graduated from the University of Michigan. “She’s just super smart and has memorized the periodic table and other things like that,” he offers by way of introduction.
Mac Neil’s gold medals on the biggest stages are no longer shock medals for Canada and the world. However, her early beginnings can still inspire awe at the sheer randomness of life. Born in Jiujiang to Chinese parents, Maggie was adopted by a Canadian family and grew up in London, Ontario.
The Sunday Times cited China’s one-child policy, which led to little girls being abandoned, as the reason Maggie was given away.
When the family moved into a house with a pool, the Mac Neil siblings took swimming lessons and she rose through the junior ranks before joining the London Club.
“It’s not our biggest, but a lot of Olympic swimmers come from the London Ontario Club,” Nathan White informs. When Mac Neil won gold in Tokyo, her sheer reaction after the 100m fly final catapulted her into a social media trend – without wearing her contacts, she was caught squinting at the giant plaque and checking , where she finished, and later stared open-mouthed when she realized she’d won gold.
“I like to take a quick look at the scoreboard. But it’s hard just because I don’t have contact lenses,” she was quoted as saying by Swimming World magazine about her delayed reaction at the time. “It takes me a minute to read the scoreboard so I was just trying to squint and see where I was coming from. At the World Championships (2019) I knew faster (that I had won) because I had Sarah Sjostrom (then Olympic champion) next to me. I heard my name called, but it wasn’t until I turned around and saw the result that I realized I’d won.”
At Birmingham’s Sandwell Pools, Mac Neil’s wins come as no surprise. “She’s not shocked by any race after beating Sarah Sjostrom,” explains White. He was in Tokyo and the TVs weren’t set up where the Canadian team was watching from the bowels of the swimming arena. “My Australian colleague had snuck onto the TV and came over and said to us, ‘Oh Maggie won!'”
Her initial reaction to winning gold was anger in Canada because so many identified with her as the girl next door. “When she was shown squinting to see the dots, so many identified with her as one of us, as a normal kid,” White recalls. Swimming teems with tall figures, with fancier wingspans and streamlined torsos—a body type, transgender, that sets them apart as a sort of special physical specimen. Here was a not-so-tall woman flashing lightning fast in the pool, but narrowing her eyes to see a distant decimal. Canada immediately fell in love with her.
“She’s kind, intelligent and funny as a person. And has that goose laugh that makes everyone happy,” added White. What impressed the Canadian fraternity the most was their absolute clarity of purpose. “She had the opportunity to go to the Pacific senior reunion in 2018, but she had her goals and goals and instead stayed with a smaller Pan Am junior reunion while she prepared to go to university. She passed up the chance to go to a senior meeting because her plan was clear regarding the junior meeting and who could have guessed, next year she became Senior World Champion!” Weiss says.
In Tokyo, Mac Neil’s medal shocked Chinese people the most as it sparked conversation about the country’s one-child policy, which led to her being dumped by birth parents as a child, according to the Sunday Times. Ironically, she beat out a Chinese, Zhang Yufei, for the gold. China’s swimming program has seen a major boost thanks to aerodynamics training with China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation. The swim teams use sensors, common in rocket development and miniaturized, to work on human bodies to check the drag created by various water movements, according to Swimmingworld magazine. It saw China win six medals from the pool in Tokyo – including silver with the women’s 800 free relay mixed medley, but China has held 200 titles in the women’s stranglehold fly since 2008 – winning three in four games. However, just like he did at the 2019 Gwangju World Championships, Mac Neil shocked Zhang in the 100m.
Maggie certainly breaks with the visible stereotypes of Commonwealth swimming where the white dominance is stunning and very visible every night you stop by for a swim. The sport was notoriously monochromatic, with a sprinkling of Japanese, Chinese and Singaporeans breaking through at the Olympics. Enith Brighit won the first Olympic medal for a black man for the Netherlands in 1976 while Anthony Nesty from Suriname remains the most famous name, winning gold in 1988. Maritza Correia became the first black woman in the US to win an Olympic medal, while Cullen Jones, the first black woman to hold a world record, in 2008. Simone Manuel was the first African American woman to win Olympic gold.
However, the Commonwealth looks a little different in Maggie’s presence, albeit through a woman who has only known herself as Canadian since a very young age. Feeling a bit burnt out, Mac Neil had skipped the 2022 Worlds and focused on the CWG. “I love being here because my mom is a huge London fan and has always wanted to come here,” she told the Express after another season podium for Canada. It had been two years since her parents and sisters had watched her compete.
She had said she wanted a “relaxed summer” ahead of CWG rather than defending her world title. “It just motivated me to come back to compete at CWG. I met my high school friends at recess and we went rock climbing!” she said. Supercharged, she returned to CWG eight years after visiting London as a visitor. This time as Olympic champion – and as headliner of the CWG show. The games look way cooler with the addition of a geeky woman in glasses who absolutely bangs in the pool, opening a closed loop for the atypical swimmers.