Margo Lee has a display case for her most prized medals.
The West Windsor resident had to make room for four more medals after earning three golds and a bronze at the Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle, Washington, in July. “I just want to keep going for more,” Lee said.
The 30-year-old has continued to develop over the years into a top-notch swimmer. The USA Games was her best performance yet at a major meet.
She won the 200-meter freestyle, the 100-meter backstroke and swam the backstroke leg for the 4×50 meter medley relay team from Team New Jersey. She also picked up a bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle.
“She was utterly incredible,” said Stephanie Johnson, the head coach of Team New Jersey. “She was dominant. We knew she was good. We didn’t know she’d do as well as she did. To come home with four medals with the level of competition we saw is incredible. It’s difficult to get to nationals, but the way she performed was outstanding.”
Lee is a local product that helped Team New Jersey flourish at nationals. Overall, the six swimmers from New Jersey took home nine gold, three silver, two bronze, two fourth-place and one fifth-place award.
“She and her family work really hard,” said Carol McMullen, assistant coach for Team New Jersey. “She’s an exceptional young lady. She’s a pleasure to have on our team. She fit in great. All the other swimmers on Team New Jersey really liked her and they got along. She was a great choice.”
Lee was a highlight in their impressive showing. The 4×50 was one example of their swimming prowess.
“They won that by more than a lap,” McMullen said. “They’re fast. They looked really good.”
McMullen started working with Lee when she joined her Monmouth Marlins club team in 2010.
At the time, Lee was training for her first major competition, the USA Games in Lincoln, Nebraska. The next year, Lee was part of Team USA at the World Games in Athens, Greece.
“I think it helped her,” Johnson said of Lee’s experience. “She had already been to nationals before. Having her leadership and experience helped the other five athletes. I think she was nervous. She understood what the stage was, but she’d been there before. When she got to the pool, it was all business.”
Lee had come up big under pressure in other big meets. In Greece, she won two gold medals, again helping the 4×50 medley relay win and also winning the 50-meter backstroke by a fingernail and she still holds that happy memory.
“I had very tough race in Greece,” Lee said. “I won the gold medal by 16 hundredths of a second.”
Lee has become a faster swimmer since then. It’s her effort that has paid significant dividends. She enjoys sightseeing as well as competing in the pool once she travels to major competitions, and it takes a lot of commitment to get there.
“I practice a lot and always try to do my best,” said Lee, who practices with the Marlins two or three times per week. Her practice routine has her better prepared to compete at a higher level.
“In 2011, she was swimming 50 yards,” said her mother, Bonnie. “Now she’s doing 100s, and actually when Margo was picked to be on the team, they had two different levels of swimmers that could be picked, and she was in the higher level because she swam the longer races.
“She can actually do a 200 backstroke. They didn’t have enough people in the national games to compete against her so they did away with that event. She really has good endurance. They did a 200 backstroke in the area meet. As her coach Carol will tell you, she has the endurance to keep going.”
McMullen agreed: “She’s definitely more of an intermediate swimmer. She was doing fewer laps, shorter distances. When I got her, I realized she’s an excellent backstroker. We worked to develop her. She’s probably the fastest backstroker in the state of New Jersey. We’ve been building up her endurance and distances.”
Lee got her start a long time ago from a close source. “My father was the first teacher,” Lee said. “I was 2 years old. Later I had some swimming lessons.”
Her first memory of swimming is another reason that she likes the sport. She made friends on the swim team.
She remains popular with her teammates. She traveled to Greece with McMullen’s son, Christopher, who is another accomplished swimmer.
Lee says she loves the challenges that the Marlins give her in training, values the exercise she gets swimming and takes her workouts seriously.
“They have awards for the Swimmer of the Week,” Bonnie said. “It’s an award that Margo gets every once in a while, but she’s recognized for putting forth her best every time she swims. There’s no slacking off.”
Lee has competed in a multitude of events with Special Olympics, which she began competing in at age 8. It’s an exhaustive list that has allowed her to try plenty.
“I have done bocce, cycling, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, soccer, track, volleyball and swimming,” Lee said.
For fun last year, she competed in bocce at the Summer Games. It’s not a surprise, though, that swimming is her favorite. And she’s better at it than any other sport, which is a good thing considering why she likes to race.
“I like to come in first,” Lee said.
She says she is looking forward to new challenges ahead in the pool, and she is hopeful she will have the opportunity to swim in longer backstroke events as she looks to compete in her favorite stroke.
She has a great training environment with the Marlins, who are a large team with 40-45 swimmers annually. They’ve enjoyed seeing Lee’s growth.
“She’s getting better, faster,” McMullen said. “She’s a more well-rounded swimmer. I’m a believer in pushing them and getting them to improve and seeing if they can swim other strokes. I have her swimming butterfly on relays as well.”
Lee will have more chances to compete in major events if she continues to thrive.
The Special Olympics has gotten more competitive with an area competition followed by a sectional with swimmers having to earn gold or silver at sectionals to advance to nationals. Lee overcame injuries to return to nationals for the second time in her career.
“The way she was able to take it to another level, the sky is the limit,” Johnson said. “She has such a good personality. Even the other teams befriended her. It’s seven days a week, up at 5 in the morning every day and an hour drive to the pool. She was tired by the end of the week, but she gritted through it and was such a leader.”
Lee excelled throughout the USA Games and put her hard work and dedication out there to bring home more medals for her display case in West Windsor. She’s not stopping as she looks ahead to 2019 and eyes her keys to returning to nationals.
Said Lee: “Get my endurance up and keep swimming longer.”