Canada’s top female distance swimmer is calling it a career.
Brittany MacLean spanned two generations of Canadian swimming and earned a reputation as a hard worker and tough competitor. She went from Olympic rookie at the London 2012 Games to team leader in Rio, where she was a key part of the women’s 4×200-m freestyle relay bronze.
Although an Olympic medal stands as one of many career highlights, MacLean’s Rio memories are bittersweet. She had even bigger personal goals for her individual events, which were in part derailed by an untimely illness in Rio.
The 22-year-old Torontonian had an outstanding start to the 2016 season. Her University of Georgia Bulldogs won their third U.S. college championship in her four years there, this time as underdogs. MacLean came off that meet and into the Canadian Olympic & Para-swimming Trials on a high and set Canadian records in the 200-m and 400-m freestyle while also qualifying in the 800.
Everything seemed to be on track as the Olympics began. She lowered her 400 record again in the prelims, but said something felt off in the final, in which she finished fifth.
“For the 400 final I had no idea what was wrong. I felt super easy and controlled in the (heat) and ended up going a best time. I thought I would go at least two seconds faster at night,” MacLean says.
The next day in Rio it became obvious she was getting sick. She lost her voice and was transferred to a private room to get extra rest and avoid spreading the illness to other athletes. She managed a strong swim in the relay final but her individual events suffered, with 10th-place finishes in the 200 and 800.
“By the time the 800 came I had no more energy. I hadn’t been able to fuel my body properly, I was on medication and did not get enough sleep.“
“It was incredible to be a member of that relay team and leave Rio as an Olympic medallist, but I was not satisfied with my performances,” she says. “I was in better shape than I ever thought I could be and was just super confident. It’s hard to accept that’s the way I was going to go out.”
She considered going at least through December’s FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Windsor, Ont., or maybe through to next year’s long-course worlds in Budapest. But as the illness continued to nag her for weeks after her return, she decided to focus on finishing her degree in Sport Management at Georgia, feeling she couldn’t put in the work necessary to swim to her potential.
Her legacy carries on to a new generation of Canadian swimmers she helped lead by example. For example, the 4×200-m relay really began to build confidence in 2014 with MacLean as the star of Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific Championships medals.
“It was cool to be a part of the Ryan Cochrane/Julia Wilkinson/Brent Hayden era, and now it’s the world of Penny (Oleksiak), Taylor (Ruck) and almost every single woman on the team was in finals,” MacLean says.
Her accomplishments are made even more impressive by the way she battled back from shoulder and hamstring injuries. After being named Swimming Canada’s Junior Female Swimmer of the Year in 2012, she was reduced to a relay-only swimmer for the 2013 worlds in Barcelona. But she bounced back in 2014, winning five international medals and Swimming Canada’s Female Swimmer of the Year award. In 2015 she swam only at Pan Am Games, then took worlds off to allow her body to recover before returning stronger for 2016.
“I enjoyed what I was doing, I liked the idea of the grind again and enjoyed the sport more than I ever had,” says MacLean, who knew in the back of her mind 2016 might be her last year. “I was appreciating the little things.”
Swimming Canada High Performance Director John Atkinson, who worked for British Swimming for 12 years, and for several years in Australia before that, called MacLean “one of the toughest swimmers I have had the pleasure to work with.
“How she managed herself through the tough times of dealing with injuries in 2013 and 2015, and then got herself back to become an Olympic medallist is an absolute credit to Brittany, her support staff and her coaches,” Atkinson says. “She has been a great competitor for Swimming Canada and to finish her career with an Olympic medal in Rio was a great achievement.”
Although she may have fallen short of her goal of being on the individual podium, MacLean has plenty to be proud of when looking back at her national team career.
“Making the Olympic final in London (7th, 400-m free) was one of them, obviously medalling in Rio,” she says when asked to list her highlights. “The fact I hold the 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 free Canadian records, getting all four of those is something that’s a really big honour for me. And just getting to compete for six years on the national team, at multiple worlds, to have medalled at Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacs.”
Ending her Georgia career with a championship also stands out. On the same night she finished second in the mile, MacLean delivered her first ever 4×100 free relay leg to help Georgia to second place, enough to earn the overall team title.
“It was by far one of the most storybook things in athletics, you only kind of see those things in movies,” says MacLean. Her Bulldogs were not favoured at NCAA nationals after the school’s six-year SEC conference championship streak came to an end.
“It was every single person contributing,” she said. “I was barely standing when I got on the blocks for the relay, but I knew I needed to step up for this inspiring group. I was filled with emotion and pride because I had the opportunity to take on a leadership role and felt that I was capable of being a difference-maker.”
Of course, wearing the Maple Leaf will always hold a special place in her heart.
“It was always an honour getting to race for Canada and I loved each opportunity to do so,” she says. “I am so excited for the future of Canadian swimming.”