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Canadian swimmer Maggie MacNeil swims to world gold

GWANGJU, Korea, Republic Of — Maggie MacNeil exceeded her expectations at the world aquatics championships. And then some.The 19-year-old from London, Ont., competing on her first senior national team, stunned many observers by winning the women’s 100 metre butterfly Monday. MacNeil also earned Canada its first gold medal of the competition and surprised herself along the way.

“Definitely not,” MacNeil said when asked if she saw the accomplishment coming. “I was hoping to get to a semifinal and maybe make a final.”I felt good in warmups but emotionally I’ve never been so nervous (before final).”MacNeil set a Canadian record with a time of 55.83 seconds, 0.39 seconds ahead of reigning Olympic champion and world-record holder Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden.Emma McKeon of Australia was third. Sjostrom had won the title four times.

Sjostrom took it out strong, dipping under her world-record pace on the first lap, while MacNeil was in fifth. But MacNeil roared back with the fastest closing lap — 29.06 — of the eight-woman final and touched first.Even after touching the wall, MacNeil still wasn’t aware she’d won the race.

“I saw Sarah in my periphery,” she said. “I didn’t have the greatest touch but at that point all I was hoping for was to get a medal for Canada.”It (winning feeling) is pretty indescribable.”After receiving their medals, the three women gathered on the top podium spot and raised their palms to the crowd, displaying a message to ailing 19-year-old Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee.

“Rikako never give up” it read, with hearts decorating their palms. Sjostrom came up with the idea.Ikee announced in February that she has leukemia. She was the world junior champion in the 100 fly and had the fastest time in the world last year. She is aiming to return in time to compete in the Tokyo Olympics.

“We’re hoping this will show that we’re supporting her and we’re here if she needs anything,” said MacNeil.Canada captured a second medal later Monday when U.S-Canadian dual citizen Sydney Pickrem took bronze in the women’s 200-metre individual medley behind Hungarian star Katinka Hosszu and Ye Shiwen of China.

MacNeil has one more individual event to compete in — the women’s 50-metre butterfly. But she figures that with Monday’s win, she created more work for herself on Canada’s relay squads. “But that’s a good thing,” she said with a chuckle.

The 100-metre butterfly victory also gives MacNeil the luxury of being able to think about next year’s Tokyo Olympics more seriously. While the gold medal hasn’t guaranteed MacNeil an Olympic berth, it’s generally regarded as the first step towards selection, and her time can stand against those posted at the Olympic trials.

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