More than Maggie Mac Neil, LSU Women Building ‘Something Special’

LSU's Jenna Bridges at the 2023 SEC Championships; Photo Courtesy: Brandon Gallego/LSU Athletics

More than Maggie MacNeil, LSU Women Building ‘Something Special’

Jenna Bridges got her hands to the wall on Friday night at Texas A&M and then, well, wasn’t quite sure what she was seeing.

The LSU sophomore looked up at the board at the Student Recreation Center Natatorium and saw a “1” next to her name. That was the first surprise. She then saw a time, “that honestly I never believed I would be able to ever go in my life.” The native of Forest City, N.C., gave a passing thought to the shoulder that got her here, on which she had surgery after SECs her freshman year and that she thought might force an injury redshirt.

But soon, Bridges came to feel something else: “Astonished,” yes, but then a visceral understanding of how she’d reached the top step of the podium.

“I was shocked, to be honest, that I was able to do as well as I did,” she said. “But I also knew that all season, my coaches have been preparing me to swim at the highest level and to do exactly what I did. I felt really proud of being able to showcase where LSU has come from in the past year and a half since Rick (Bishop, head coach) came here.”

That quick volley of emotions pervaded LSU’s performance in College Station. There was amazement at what they accomplished – some from the sheer jaw-dropping speed of Maggie Mac Neil – followed by a quick realization that yes, this was what they came to SECs to do. The Tigers’ postseason story, which they look to continue at NCAAs this month, is about the instant impact of Mac Neil as a graduate transfer from Michigan. But it’s also down to the women around her, who’ve reached new heights and are bringing the program with them, a growth they hope to sustain once the Canadian Olympic champion’s career ends.

‘That’s Not Me’

Bridges’ triumph in the 200 fly didn’t do much to prepare Ella Varga for when she hit the wall Saturday. The freshman from Canada entered the meet seeded 23rd in the 200 back, her best college time a 1:56.68. She clubbed four seconds off that in prelims to take the third seed into finals, then hacked away another six tenths to beat the field by a half-second, in 1:51.74.

Her reaction at the wall should sound familiar.


LSU’s Ella Varga with her gold from the 200 back at SECs; Photo Courtesy: Brandon Gallego/LSU Athletics

“I think it was kind of just pure shock in a way,” Varga said. “I was not expecting that whatsoever. Seeing that board and seeing that I came in first, I was like, that’s crazy. That’s not me.”

The magic that LSU uncovered is how a training environment, led by Rick Bishop and Mac Neil, has made swimmers into the best versions of themselves.

Mac Neil’s SECs performance, on the way to a no-brainer Female Swimmer of the Meet, is instructive. Yes, she won the 50 freestyle, 100 fly and 100 free, setting SEC records in the former two. But it was easy to see the meet playing out like the opening 200 medley relay, in which Mac Neil delivered the fastest 50 back split in history (22.52) but the Tigers finished eighth, fading from a second clear of the field to 2.5 seconds back of winner Alabama.

But the Tigers changed course. LSU won the 200 free relay, Mac Neil splitting an otherworldly 20.44 and the squad of Katarina Milutinovich, Peyton Curry and Michaela De Villiers excelling around her. (De Villiers, for instance, went 22.76 at the midseason invitational in the same pool, but the South African split 21.69 off the end to hold off the field.) It was LSU’s first SEC relay title since 1986.

The 400 free relay likewise stepped up to cap the meet with a win, Mac Neil joined by Milutinovich, De Villiers and Megan Barnes to go 3:10.57. The eight gold medals was the most in an SECs in program history, and their fifth-place point total was the highest since 2014-15.

The success didn’t come out of nowhere. Bridges set the program’s 500 free record as a freshman. Milutinovich swam at NCAAs in three freestyle events last year. But at SECs, the form proved contagious. To see swimmers rocket to their best times and know they’ve done the same training you have for months, the confidence feeds on itself.

“For the women to see, hey training has worked, taper has worked, everyone here has the opportunity to drop time and swim well, I think that momentum carried throughout the meet,” Bridges said. “And the next night, the 200 freestyle relay, winning a title for the first time in 37 years, it just continued. It definitely does snowball throughout the meet and everybody is like, ‘hey that could be me. I could do something I never thought I’d be able to do before.’”

“Just seeing when Maggie, the first relay on that first night and then getting gold the next night and seeing Jenna Bridges get the 200 fly gold, I think we were just like, ‘ok, this is possible, to do extremely well here,’” Varga said. “I think knowing that and seeing that and experiencing that, it gave you a better picture of what is possible.”

The Maggie Factor

Mac Neil has brought not just points but an atmosphere to Baton Rouge. An Olympic champ, a world champ, a world record holder, a NCAA record holder – it’s no slight to say Mac Neil is the best swimmer to come through LSU, if only because Mac Neil is the best swimmer to come through just about all the places she’s been.

Training with her and witnessing how she goes about her business has given young swimmers a model to emulate. It’s a cornerstone of what Bishop, who took over in June 2021, has instilled.


LSU’s Jenna Bridges at 2023 SEC Championships; Photo Courtesy: Brandon Gallego/LSU Athletics

Like the larger LSU effort, Bishop’s coaching pedigree isn’t down to one star pupil. While he had a hand in helping Mac Neil develop, he mentored plenty of standouts in nine seasons as the associate head coach at the University of Michigan and before that at USA Swimming. He’s coached internationally since the 1990s. He helped Siobhan Haughey become an Olympic medalist for Hong Kong and guided a slew of international swimmers.

Bridges committed to LSU before Bishop had taken the reins. She recalled their first conversation in which he set his goal of having swimmers be happy with their swims at each season’s end. Bridges bought into that mantra of continual improvement, and the results have followed.

“He’s really been selling that this is the beginning, this is the movement we’re making to becoming a top swimming program in the country,” Bridges said. “To see it all come to fruition was really exciting.”

Mac Neil’s decision to train in Baton Rouge, committing first to Cal and then shifting to LSU, has accelerated that, but the process was already in motion. She brings a rigor and a professionalism that can’t help but rub off on those around her. It’s particularly profound for Varga, who committed to LSU before she knew an icon of the Canadian program would be her teammate.

“It’s been amazing training with Maggie and with every single girl on this team,” Varga said. “They push me a lot, and I think that’s a huge part of it. Training with Maggie, it’s pretty awesome to train backstroke with her and get to have someone to race in the pool, especially during the hard sets where you want to try your best with someone there pushing you.”

“The intensity is bumped up and the expectation from the coaches that we behave as professional athletes is something that Rick really drives home, that he wants all of us to be professional athletes and to take our success into our own hands,” Bridges said. “I think that level has really been increased this past year, and I think that definitely has to do with the fact that Maggie came in. She’s an excellent role model as to what a professional is and what a leader is like in this sport and someone who takes ownership of their success.”

That last part of the message has been duly received. Mac Neil’s teammates aren’t just spectators watching her do cool stuff. They are pushing their times into realms they couldn’t have fathomed.

That’s how culture gets baked into a program, something that can outlast Mac Neil’s one year in purple and gold. And it’s how you get reactions like Varga’s and Bridges’ at SECs: Surprise at the results, but on second consideration, a deep faith in the process that led there.

“I’m surprised but I’m not surprised,” Bridges said. “With the work we’ve been putting in in the year and a half since Rick has been here and knowing the excitement around it and the culture we’re building here. It’s the start of something special.”

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