Black Swimming Pioneer Simone Manuel Shocks The World With Throwback Performance Winning The 50-Meter Freestyle And Earning Trip To Third Olympics

Add Simone Manuel’s name to the pantheon of US Olympic legends. When it comes to African-American excellence in swimming, Manuel is undoubtedly the GOAT after earning an individual race at the Olympics on the final night of the U.S. swimming trials, winning the 50-meter freestyle Sunday night.

What drives an Olympian who has already been a pioneer and reached the top of the mountain? 

Manuel, the first Black female swimmer to win an individual gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, looks to attack Paris with the intention of adding to a vaunted résumé that already includes winning two golds and two silvers. 

Before she ever won Olympic gold, Manuel had already shattered a glass ceiling in swimming at the collegiate level as part of a game-changing group of Black swimmers who emphatically signaled the arrival of Black Girl magic in a sport that previously has systematically and culturally excluded them from partaking in the glory of competition.

READ MORE: TSL Olympic Blitz | Simone Manuel Makes Use Of Her Golden Moment

When she did get her moment to exhale after striking gold in the 2016 Rio Olympics after she tied with Penny Oleksiak of Canada to win the gold medal in the women’s 100m freestyle, Manuel responded with the following when asked about the importance of her medal to the United States. 

“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” said Manuel, whose victory broke a long-overdue barrier as she became the first African-American woman to medal in an individual Olympic swimming event.

 “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color comes with the territory.”

It is something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot, Manuel said. Coming into the race I tried to take the weight of the Black community on my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not, Simone, the black swimmer.”

Simone Manuel Made History At 2016 Olympics In Brazil

Manuel made Olympic history in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro when she tied with Oleksiak to win the gold medal in the women’s 100-meter freestyle. Her victory broke a long-overdue barrier as she became the first African-American woman to medal in an individual Olympic swimming event.

This time around was different. An older and wiser Manuel, unaffected by the dynamics of COVID quarantine and the mental stress it caused for everyone, won her event in 24.13 seconds.

An emotional Manuel kept shaking her head in disbelief when she saw that she had actually won the event straight out. 

“I wasn’t feeling real confident after last night,” said Manuel, who was only the fourth-fastest qualifier in the semifinals, nearly a half-second behind Gretchen Walsh. “I spent a lot of time watching races where I won. I wanted to channel that Simone because I know I’m a winner.”

Simone Manuel Has A Chance To Become Iconic

Manuel had already clinched a spot at her third Olympics on the 4×100 freestyle relay, but now the 27-year-old has another shot to win an individual medal. 

Manuel’s ascension back to the elite of the sport comes after a disappointing performance ahead of the pandemic-delayed Tokyo Games. Simone Biles wasn’t the only legend whose performance at the Tokyo Games put their career into uncertainty. 

After Manuel shockingly failing to qualify in the 100 freestyle, she revealed that she had been diagnosed with overtraining syndrome. Manuel’s resilience allowed her to earn a spot in the 50 freestyle, but she didn’t qualify for the final at the Olympics. Her only medal was a bronze anchoring the 4×100 free relay.

Doctors ordered Manuel to shut down all physical activity and she didn’t return to the pool until 2023, but she didn’t attempt to qualify for the world championships that summer.

She instead moved to Arizona, where she trained under Olympic legend Michael Phelps’ longtime coach Bob Bowman, and the move has paid dividends for Manuel, who’s been making history in the world of swimming since her college days. 

Simone Manuel Made Black History, Broke Glass Ceilings In College

Similar to sports such as golf, ice skating, and gymnastics, swimming has long been considered by primitive minds as an athletic endeavor that is an unnatural fit for African-Americans.

With three African-American swimmers sweeping the podium in the 100-yard freestyle at the Women’s Division 1 NCAA Championship in 2015 (a feat recognized by the national governing body of swimming in the United States with a celebratory tweet) it was clear that a swimming blackout was upon us.

Manuel, a freshman phenom at Stanford, set an NCAA, American, U.S. Open, championship, and pool record when she clocked a time of 46.09 in the women’s 100-yard freestyle that year.

Manuel’s Stanford teammate Lia Neal came in second place with a time of 47.13.

Neal is no stranger to star-studded success. Raised in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn by her parents Rome and Siu Neal, who are of African-American and Chinese-American descent, Lia was also a pioneer for Black women in swimming as she won a bronze medal in the 4×100 free relay at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Her also being a part of this landmark moment in NCAA swimming made total sense.

Completing the record-breaking triumvirate was University of Florida’s Natalie Hinds, who swam a time of 47.24. Hinds reset her own school record in the event during competition.

Manuel is another legendary Olympic athlete that is still competing at an elite level and forging new paths for athletes as they advance in age. We all wait in anticipation to see what she can do in Paris.

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