Simone Manuel is back in the pool for her second Olympics, a remarkable achievement after she was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome earlier this year. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, she became the first Black female swimmer with an Olympic gold medal after conquering the 100m freestyle.
The Houston-area native — who turns 25 years old on Aug. 2 — will compete in the 50m freestyle in Tokyo. On a team with a lot of first-time Olympians, Manuel will be a reliable veteran voice among the Americans.
Manuel has one chance for individual gold in Tokyo
Manuel was expected to have a full slate of relays in Tokyo as the American record-holder in the 100m freestyle, but she failed to make the 100m final at the U.S. Swim Trials in June. Afterward, she revealed that she had to miss three weeks of training in April due to overtraining syndrome, which can cause insomnia and depression.
Manuel rebounded to win the 50m freestyle on the last night of the trials with a time of 24.29 seconds, only 34 hundredths off her American record. She could still be added to relays.
Manuel’s Olympic medal count could reach historic heights
In Rio, Manuel collected four medals: gold in the 100m freestyle, silver in the 50m freestyle, silver in the 4x100m freestyle relay and gold in the 4×100 medley relay.
Besides becoming the first Black woman to win swimming gold, Manuel also broke the Olympic record for the 100m freestyle by finishing in 52.70 seconds — but she wasn’t the only one. Canadian Penny Oleksiak touched the wall at the exact same time, meaning they each earned a gold medal.
Manuel is tied (with Missy Franklin) for the second-most world swimming titles by a woman at 11. Only Katie Ledecky, with 15, has more.
Manuel trains with Katie Ledecky
Manuel and fellow Olympian Katie Ledecky both competed for Stanford under coach Greg Meehan, who is also the head coach for the U.S. women’s team in Tokyo. Last March, the teammates found themselves without a pool to train in when Stanford closed its athletics facilities because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meehan found out that a local couple had a two-lane, 25-meter pool in their backyard. Tod and Cathy Spieker — whose names are on the aquatics center at UCLA — agreed to let Manuel and Ledecky train there.
Although the Olympics were postponed to 2021 a few days later, Manuel and Ledecky continued swimming at the Spiekers’ for three months, which allowed them to stay in shape during an uncertain time.
She tried multiple sports before settling on swimming
Manuel’s home hasn’t always been in the pool. She pursued ballet until she was 12 and — like her mother, Sharron — also used to play basketball and volleyball. Her father, Marc, and two older brothers, Ryan and Chris, all played basketball collegiately as well.
She competed for Stanford for 3 years
Manuel graduated from Stanford University in 2019, majoring in communication with a minor in African American studies. She won 14 NCAA titles (six individual, eight team) and helped the Cardinal capture NCAA championships in 2017 and 2018.
She is a vocal advocate for racial and social justice
As the first Black female swimmer to win individual Olympic gold, Manuel has said that “representation is super important.” She asks for Black beauticians when she does photo shoots and even put an inclusion rider on her contract with her apparel sponsor, TYR. (Inclusion riders are contract clauses to ensure that women and minorities make up a certain percentage of the production.)
Manuel is often asked about the lack of racial diversity among swimmers, an important issue that is usually not raised with white swimmers. As she said last year on the “Changing the Game” podcast, “I genuinely believe that every other swimmer that is next to me whether they’re white, Black, Asian, they need to answer that question [about diversity]. Shouldn’t diversity, equality and inclusion be important to all of us? It can’t just be important to Black people.”