Canadian Olympic champion and international swimming star Maggie Mac Neil is putting her mental health first in an attempt to bring a little more balance and calm to her life and swimming career.
In an exclusive interview with CBC Sports, one of Canada’s most decorated swimmers explained she will not be competing in any individual events at the upcoming world championships this summer in Budapest, citing anxiety and pressure to succeed as something that’s been pushing down on her and making it difficult to compete.
“I always thought I was invincible. I was completely normal and fine in high school and most of college. But I think this year was a little more difficult for me,” Mac Neil explained, speaking at Canadian swimming trials in Victoria, B.C.
In February, Mac Neil approached Swimming Canada’s High Performance Director John Atkinson and shared some of her concerns over expectations for her.
Mac Neil explains it was during that meeting the two came up with a plan to sit out the individual events during worlds and focus solely on relays.
“It’s hard to stay at the top and that pressure really got to me. I need a chill summer. I don’t want to be out of international competition. I want to train and compete well for Canada but I needed that little bit of a let up I guess,” Mac Neil said.
“Your mental and physical health comes before you as an athlete. So they [Swimming Canada] definitely have been thinking of us as a person first which is so important. I’m grateful for that.”
Support from Swimming Canada
Atkinson says he was equally grateful for Mac Neil coming forward with her concerns and gladly spent the time with her mapping out what the next number of months look like.
“We always will be receptive to our athletes and supportive. At the end of the day, the athlete as people comes first. The athletes have their own thoughts and aspirations. And our aspirations pretty much match theirs and you have to work with them to get there,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson says he believes that the individual approach to each athlete’s needs is allowing Canadian swimmers to excel in the pool.
“What counts is how the athlete is now and how they get to Paris and motivated for the next Olympics,” he said.
“You have to treat every athlete as an individual. We don’t have hard set rules. We’ll work with each athlete on what they need and how we can help.”
Mac Neil has been nothing short of remarkable in the pool over the last number of years. The 22-year-old from London, Ont., has won just about everything there is to win in swimming.
In Tokyo, she won a medal of every colour including Olympic gold in her specialty event the 100-metre butterfly. She followed that up with four gold and a silver at the 2021 short-course world swimming championships in Abu Dhabi.
WATCH | Mac Neil wins Canada’s 1st gold of Tokyo Olympics:
Mac Neil is also a two-time NCAA champion with the Michigan Wolverines.
But for as much as the accolades are flattering and winning is always the goal, Mac Neil says the pressure of being great at every meet has been starting to become too much.
“It’s challenging. I love being myself and all the opportunities I’ve gotten and come across over the last six months,” she said.
“Usually I’m pretty calm about it all. I try to keep a level head and not let my emotions get too high or too low. But I think sometimes the nerves get to me and I get really quiet and reserved and overthink things.”
To compound matters, during NCAA championships in March, Mac Neil slipped and fell on the pool deck and ended up with a slight fracture in her elbow. It’s nothing major according to Mac Neil, however, it will require some rehabilitation over the next number of weeks.
“It was really badly bruised so I just assumed it was a bone bruise,” Mac Neil said. “Just to be safe I got a CT scan on Monday and an MRI yesterday, and it turns out I have a small fracture.”
Mac Neil wins 100m fly at trials
That didn’t stop Mac Neil from competing in the 100m fly final Wednesday night in Victoria. She won the race in a time of 57.13 seconds and earned her spot on the national team heading to Budapest in the middle of June.
Mac Neil will compete only in the relay events, with the plan to return to the 100m fly event at the Commonwealth Games later in the summer.
“I definitely feel relieved by this move. I’m so grateful for John and the doctors and Team Canada as a whole for supporting me as I made those decisions and supporting me for selection criteria at this meet,” Mac Neil said.
What Mac Neil is experiencing is not unlike what another Canadian superstar swimmer faced and has publicly talked about in the wake of her Olympic success as well.
Penny Oleksiak shot to stardom after her breakout performances in Rio at the age of 16. Oleksiak became the first Canadian athlete to win four medals at a single summer Games.
She was seemingly on top of the world but away from the spotlight Oleksiak was crashing under the weight of pressure to remain on top.
“After 2016 there was a lot of pressure on every meet I went to. I was expected to win every race I did. It kind of felt like everyone was watching me,” Oleksiak told CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault during an interview in the lead up to Tokyo.
WATCH | Penny Oleksiak discusses pressures of swimming at top level:
It took a couple of years of Oleksiak working through that before she was able to find her love of swimming again — but more than anything work through the expectations other people had of her.
Oleksiak’s experience is not lost on Mac Neil, who wants to be part of the change in sport when it comes to speaking out when the burden of being the best becomes too much.
“I’ve seen people and teammates go through and I’ve been there for them. I hope they can do the same and I know they will,” Mac Neil said.
“Mental health has been more on the forefront of everyone’s minds lately and it’s great the stigma is ending. You don’t have to question it.”
More Canadian records broken
There was fast swimming inside Saanich Commonwealth Place Wednesday night.
Two more Canadian records fell on the second night of finals at the Swimming Canada national trials in Victoria — a night after 15-year-old Summer McIntosh broke her 400m freestyle record and Finlay Knox broke his 200m individual medley record.
On Wednesday evening, Kylie Masse, of La Salle, Ont., broke her own Canadian record in the women’s 50m backstroke with a blistering time of 27.18.
WATCH | Masse breaks Canadian 50m backstroke record at national trials:
Josh Liendo, 19, smashed his own previous record of 51.40 in the men’s 100m fly by posting a time of 50.88 and qualifying him for the world championship this summer.
Knox also qualified for worlds in the same event in a time of 51.86.
WATCH l Liendo sets Canadian record in men’s 100m fly on Day 2 of trials:
Abby Dunford from Regina, 16, earned her spot at the world championship in the women’s 1500m freestyle by posting a time of 16:20.26, under the FINA standard.
Qualifying for worlds in the 100m butterfly event along with Mac Neil was Katerine Savard in a time of 58.01.
More than 550 swimmers from across Canada are competing in Para events, junior events and senior events all looking to earn their spots on the Canadian teams heading to world championships this summer.
WATCH l Nicholas Bennett breaks own 200m freestyle national record: