We knew six years ago, before the Rio Olympics, that Simone Manuel was built different.
Her destiny and duty as a Black swimmer transcended the sport. 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 had previously, systematically and culturally, excluded them from partaking in the glory of competition.
When she did get her moment to exhale after striking gold in the 2016 Rio Olympics, 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. 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.”
Five years later and she’s still carrying those burdens to some degree and it almost cost her a shot at a second consecutive Olympic Games.
Three days after revealing that she was suffering from overtraining, anxiety and depression Manuel, 24, displayed the fortitude, unwavering determination and hyperfocus that has elevated her to legendary status in the swim game.
In a desperate last attempt, Manuel qualified for the 50 free at the Tokyo Games.
“More than anything I’m relieved just to be back on the team,” Manuel said, “and having another opportunity to swim for Team USA is just a blessing.”
After failing to qualify for the 100-meter freestyle finals at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials — a stunning result considering Manuel is the American record-holder and reigning Olympic champion in the event — Manuel spoke at an emotional news conference where she revealed that she’s recently missed three weeks of critical training dealing with the exhausting effects of her mental ailments.
It surely would have been a letdown for Team USA if Manuel failed to return to her second consecutive Olympic Games. But in light of everything we know about the mental health epidemic in America and Naomi Osaka’s decision not to participate in the French Open due to mental health reasons, no one would blame Manuel if she failed to qualify or even bailed out before the 50m freestyle
Her legacy is already secured.
Manuel made Olympic history in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro when she tied with Penny Oleksiak of Canada to win the gold medal in the women’s 100m Freestyle. Her victory broke a long-overdue barrier as she became the first African-American woman to medal in an individual Olympic swimming event.
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Yup. She’s that important to the history of the sport.
That Olympics will forever be known as the one in which women shattered racial barriers and integrated sports that were traditionally ruled by white athletes. Men’s swimming had Cullen Jones, who won two golds and two silvers at the 2012 Olympics. But the eyes of diversity were focused on Manuel’s auspicious performance, which also secured Team USA’s first gold medal in that event since 1984.
Let’s rewind a bit further.
Back in March of 2015, Manuel helped lay the foundation and plant the seed for her Olympic moment. She was one of three African-American swimmers who historically swept the podium in the 100-yard freestyle at the Women’s Division 1 NCAA Championship. It was clear that the swimming blackout was upon us.
Manuel followed in the footsteps of her Brooklyn-born teammate Lia Neal who became the first African-American woman to medal in the 2012 Olympics when she won a bronze medal, swimming the third leg of the women’s 4×100-meter freestyle relay.
Neal also participated in the 2016 Olympics, winning a silver along with Manuel in the 4×100-meter relay. But Manuel’s golden stroke stole the spotlight. Her accomplishments have helped swing the pendulum of swimming diversity in an all-inclusive, non-segregated direction.
Her legend just continues to grow and we look forward to seeing her impose her will on opponents in Tokyo.
We also hope that she is able to get the proper help to ensure that she’s in the right frame of mind and 100 percent of sound, mind, and body when she represents her country and people of color on sports’ grandest stage.