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Canadian women hunting NCAA gold in Knoxville

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – Canadians will have a small but mighty presence at the NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships.

The Canadian contingent converging on Knoxville, Tenn., will include a defending champion, another past champion, and yet another top seed.

Kelowna, B.C., native Taylor Ruck enters as the title-holder in the 200-yard freestyle. The senior at Stanford is the No. 5 seed after helping the Cardinal to a second straight Pac-12 title last month. She won the 200 free in Federal Way, Wash., in 1:43.04, and was part of gold medals in the 200 and 400 free relays.

Ruck is looking forward to a more “normal” NCAAs to cap her college career, after the COVID-19 interruptions that led to an extra year of eligibility.

“Last year was still kind of weird with COVID restrictions, even in classes still wearing masks and not being able to do this and that,” she says. “I’m surrounded by really great people here at Stanford, my coaches, my teammates, I’m having a blast and it feels good getting back to” normal.

“My original class, we’re all fifth years and they’ve been with me since Day 1. It’s super special they’ve stuck around for their own goals and we can have that extra year together.”

The fastest seed in the 200 free just so happens to be another Canadian. Riverview, N.B., product Brooklyn Douthwright enters with the hot hand after winning the event at the SEC Championships, and going even faster to lead off Tennessee’s second-place 800 free relay with a time of 1:42.45.

“It’s going really well, this year especially is going great. My freshman year it took me a while to get used to this whole college swimming format and getting up and racing so often. This year I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve just been loving racing with my team and swimming fast,” said the sophomore. “Definitely the focus has been on NCAAs. The goal going into SECs was to get myself a good lane for prelims for NCAAs. I did that, now I’m excited to go swim and race fast at NCAAs.”

Douthwright, who earned three bronze medals with Team Canada at the 2019 World Junior Championships, will be competing at her home Allan Jones Intercollegiate Aquatic Center.

“I’m super comfortable in that building and in that pool but either way 25 yards is 25 yards. I’d be excited no matter where it is and I’m definitely excited to build these memories in my home pool to add on to what I’ve already got there. There’s been a lot, just a collection of all the small moments building relationships with my teammates. SECs was there last year as well and we won the title, so a lot of good memories surrounding that,” Douthwright said.

Meanwhile, Olympic 100-m butterfly champion Maggie Mac Neil is looking to cap her college career on her own terms after a disappointing 2022 championships. Mac Neil entered last year’s meet as champion in the 100 butterfly but finished third behind Virginia’s Kate Douglass and Ruck’s Stanford teammate Torri Huske. It was the end of a frustrating final year at Michigan for Mac Neil, who suffered an elbow injury in the locker room at the meet. She says now she didn’t feel “physically or emotionally capable” to perform at her best las year.

Mac Neil followed her past coach Rick Bishop to Louisiana State for her final year of eligibility this year and it couldn’t have gone better so far.

“I have been unbelievably happy here this year and I think that’s shown in how I’ve been swimming and my attitude toward everything,” she says.

She’s won every 100 butterfly, 100 and 50 freestyle race in which she’s competed this season. As much as her individual success, she’s enjoyed contributing to building a winning team culture at LSU, which won an unprecedented two relay titles at SECs.

“I’ve always loved doing relays since I was a kid and it was a big factor when I decided to come here,” Mac Neil says. “Those were moments I’ll remember forever. We hadn’t won a relay since 1986 and that was the only one.”

Defending champion Douglass is the only swimmer seeded ahead of Mac Neil in 100 fly at 48.84. The London, Ont., product enters as the favourite in 100 free (46.27) and Virginia’s Gretchen Walsh sits one spot ahead of her atop the 50 free rankings (20.98). While she’d love to regain at least one national crown, she’s trying to focus more on the process than the results as she finishes her collegiate career.

“I’m trying not to put pressure and stress on myself. It’s going to happen regardless, which is a good thing because it means that I care. But honestly this year wasn’t as much about winning. I don’t know what’s going to happen and I have great competition in all three of my events. It’s really been about finishing my NCAA career on my terms,” Mac Neil says. “If I win, great. If I don’t, I hope to at least put up some good times that are up there with my best times and enjoy the experience of swimming with these girls.”

No matter what happens in the pool, Mac Neil expects the meet will see a range of emotions from the Canadians competing at their last NCAAs, including Florida’s Nina Kucheran and Victoria Kwan, Mac Neil’s former Michigan teammate now at South Carolina.

“It hasn’t hit me yet that I’m done (after this),” Mac Neil says.

“It’s definitely sad now it’s kicking in, like, this is my real last year,” Ruck agrees. “I’m just kind of trying to take time in these super busy last few months to reflect on that.”