GWANGJU, South Korea – Maggie MacNeil only has two days of FINA World Championships experience, but she’s made the most of it.
A night after anchoring Canada’s women’s 4×100-m freestyle relay to bronze, the 19-year-old from London, Ont., followed it up with a stunning victory over Swedish legend Sarah Sjostrom in the women’s 100-m butterfly final on Day 2 in Gwangju, South Korea.
“I was very surprised. I couldn’t believe it. I looked up and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m out of this world right now.’ ” MacNeil said.
MacNeil turned in fifth but charged down the world-record holder, Olympic champion and three-time defending world champion with a blistering back half of 29.06 to stop the clock in 55.83.
“I’ve definitely been working on my second 50. I tend not to go out as fast as the other girls, but I definitely can come back really well,” she said.
MacNeil became the second-fastest woman ever in the event, bested Penny Oleksiak’s Canadian record 56.46 from her Rio 2016 Olympic silver, and knocked down American Dana Vollmer’s Americas record of 55.98 from her London 2012 Olympic gold. She became just the third woman under 56 seconds, and Canada’s second ever female FINA world champion.
“It’s crazy, my first world championships, it’s great to come away with a medal and it’s a gold one,” MacNeil said. “I can’t even put it into words right now.”
A stunned Sjostrom touched in 56.22, but quickly recovered from her shock to give MacNeil a classy congratulatory hug.
“She congratulated me, she was so nice and so great. I’ve looked up to her forever, so it means the world,” MacNeil said. “It was incredible. Racing Sarah is always going to be really special but tonight was definitely extra special.”
Australia’s Emma McKeon took bronze in 56.61. The trio got together to write a combined message of encouragement to Japan’s Rikako Ikee on their hands, which they displayed on the podium. The 2018 Pan Pacific champion was expected to be a force at these championships and the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, but was diagnosed with leukemia in February.
“She’s really battling her cancer and she couldn’t be with us today, so we’re hoping that this will show her that we’re supporting her and we’re here for her,” said MacNeil, who had “Never Give Up” written on her hands.
Sydney Pickrem, 22, followed up MacNeil’s performance with a bronze medal in the women’s 200-m individual medley. Her time of 2:08.70 held off American Melanie Margalis (2:08.91) for third. The past two Olympic champions, Hungary’s Katinka Hosszu (2:07.53) and China’s Ye Shiwen (2:08.60), took gold and silver. It was the fourth consecutive world championship for the “Iron Lady” – the first woman to achieve that feat.
“It’s an honour to be on the podium with two girls who are Olympic gold medallists, so they definitely inspire me and get me to push myself,” Pickrem said.
“Tonight has to be one of the greatest nights ever if not the greatest night for a Canadian swimming team at a world championships,” said High Performance Director and National Coach John Atkinson. “Our athletes continue to convert opportunities. Maggie MacNeil swam an outstanding race to become world champion in the women’s 100 butterfly. Congratulations to Maggie and also to her Canadian club coach Andrew Craven at the London Aquatic Club where she came through the program. And Sydney Pickrem taking bronze in the 200 IM was a fantastic effort. She has shown great consistency this year in the event.”
Pickrem’s medal was extra special after she choked on water in the final of the event in 2017 and got out of the water.
“For sure I was feeling a lot more emotional going into it than I usually am. I always have the nerves but I don’t usually get emotional before. I really was thinking back to it but I was like ‘You know what, if you finish the race you’ve already done one step better than last time,’ ” she said with a laugh. “I just try and laugh about it now because I definitely wasn’t laughing about it two years ago. I felt like I let a lot of people down and it kind of took me a while to get in a mental health state that I realized I didn’t let anyone down.”
Meanwhile, Kylie Masse of Windsor, Ont., took a successful second step towards defending her 2017 world championship in the 100-m backstroke. The University of Toronto swimmer’s semifinal time of 58.50 puts her through into Tuesday’s final as the top seed. Kelowna, B.C., native Taylor Ruck of the High Performance Centre – Ontario advanced in third position at 58.83.
“With Kylie and Taylor through to the final of the women’s 100 back in great lanes for the final tomorrow night it was really job done tonight for the team,” Atkinson said. “Two days of eight down and now it’s time to keep focused and on track for the next six days.”
In the men’s 100 back, Markus Thormeyer of the High Performance Centre – Vancouver finished 11th with a time of 53.59 in his men’s 100-m backstroke semifinal.
In the preliminary heats, Thormeyer’s HPC-Vancouver teammate Alex Pratt made his world championships debut with a 35th-place finish in the 200-m freestyle (1:49.56)
The eight-day meet continues through Sunday at the Nambu University Municipal Aquatics Center.
FINA TV (https://www.finatv.live/en), CBC (https://www.cbc.ca/sports/broadcast) and Radio-Canada (https://ici.radio-canada.ca/sports/horaire-diffusions) will webcast finals live at 7 a.m. ET each day, with highlights on CBC’s Road to the Olympic Games show. Viewers can download the CBC broadcast schedule to sync with smartphone calendar apps here: http://calrep.ly/2JDCwxx
Visit www.swimming.ca for bios, profiles, preview stories and recaps, and follow Swimming Canada on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates throughout the championships.