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Simone Manuel’s experiences, before and after Rio, shape her voice for change today

Simone Manuel

ATLANTA, GEORGIA - DECEMBER 06: Simone Manuel looks on after competing in the Women’s 200 LC Meter Freestyle during day three of the 2019 Toyota U.S. Open Championships at the Georgia Tech Campus Recreation Center on December 06, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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A pivotal 45 minutes of Simone Manuel‘s swimming career transpired at last summer’s world championships.

Manuel had just underperformed in the semifinals of her best event, the 100m freestyle, tying for seventh place to get into the eight-woman final.

That came after relay silver medals behind rival Australia in her first two events, including getting passed on the anchor leg the night before (granted, in the first relay, Manuel had her best 100m split ever).

Three years earlier at the Rio Olympics, Manuel tied for the 100m free title with Canadian Penny Oleksiak. It was an upset. Manuel became the first U.S. Black female swimmer to take individual gold.

She went into the 2019 World Championships as the reigning Olympic and world champion, ticketed as one of the biggest U.S. stars across all sports at the Tokyo Games. Imagine what she felt after coming .15 of a second from missing the 100m free final at worlds, where results determine Olympic favorites.

That put her in lane one for the final, three lanes from the other favorites. Rarely does a swimmer win from lane one.

Manuel described worlds, and in particular, that time after the 100m free semifinals, as her most difficult experience in this Olympic cycle.

She felt pressure not only because of her past accomplishments, but also from something no other swimmer in the field faced.

“As a Black swimmer, I do know, that if I wouldn’t have swam well [in the final], that there would probably going to be a lot of negative comments about me,” she said. “Those are experiences I’ve had to deal with. I know that they, unfortunately, come to the surface.”

Manuel, who turns 24 next week, first wanted to swim on a team at age 4, following her older brothers, Ryan and Chris.

She remembers, at age 6, a boy telling her after practice that he didn’t want to play with her because she’s Black.

At 12, she stopped taking ballet classes after 10 years (her favorite performance was “Nutcracker,” which she did annually) and focused on swimming. That’s about when a girl on her Houston-area club team invited all of the swimmers to her birthday party except Manuel, the only Black girl in the group.

As a teenager, somebody asked Manuel why she was swimming rather than running track.

“It’s important to share those details, not only to educate others, hopefully, to be anti-racist and inclusive, but also to educate and inspire those who constantly feel like a minority, constantly feel counted out, to show them that you can do this,” Manuel said while promoting P&G’s Measure of Greatness digital film, which tells the inspiring athlete stories of four Olympic and Paralympic athletes, including Manuel.

Manuel considered quitting swimming in those early competitive years. She wasn’t sure if it was the right sport for her. In her early teens, she for a time lost joy after being moved up to a training group with older swimmers, no longer practicing with kids her own age.

She credited the support from her parents, Sharron, a consultant pharmacist, and Marc, a business analyst, both athletes growing up. And her youth coach, Allison Beebe.

In 2015, as a Stanford freshman, Manuel began feeling very sick. She spent eight months that year with chronic sinusitis and a complete blockage of her right nostril. She also had a stress fracture in her ribs. Six weeks before the 2016 Olympic Trials, she had balloon sinuplasty nasal surgery.

She refrained from speaking publicly about it because she didn’t want it to be framed as an excuse if she swam poorly at trials or the Olympics.

“So I was dealing with a lot of that pretty internally and still trying to make sure my goals were at the forefront,” she said.

Manuel made the difficult choice to redshirt her sophomore season in 2015-16, plus take a quarter off school, and focus on training for the Games. She set her daily alarm for 5:53. She went to the Olympic Trials in Omaha and finished second in the 50m and 100m frees, where two individual spots were available.

Manuel went to Rio ranked ninth in the world in the 100m free and seventh in the 50m free. At the Games, she took .55 off her 100m free personal best, shattering the American record to take gold. In the 50m free, she chopped .24 off her best time ever (significant in a 24-second race) and took silver, just .02 shy of gold.

“I can’t begin to tell you what this means for the sport of swimming in the United States,” longtime NBC Sports swimming analyst and Olympic champion Rowdy Gaines said on the broadcast after the 100m free.

In the four days following that race, there were 23,210 searches for a swim team on -- triple the total amount of searches during the entire eight-day Olympic Trials a month earlier.

USA Swimming dubbed it, The Simone Effect.

Manuel swept the sprints at the 2017 Worlds, again with her fastest times ever (both American records). She developed the best possible reputation for a swimmer: a knack to go best times at the most important meets.

“When I first started in swimming, it was pretty difficult for me,” Manuel said in a speech in front of her USA Swimming peers at last November’s Golden Goggles Awards, where she became the first Black swimmer to win Athlete of the Year. “It still is difficult to this day.”

As has been noted in recent stories, Manuel is using her platform as an Olympic champion to be a voice for awareness and change about race in America. When she turned professional in 2018, her swimwear deal with Tyr had an inclusion rider.

“That her partners extend meaningful opportunities to traditionally underrepresented groups and that diversity be reflected in the creative efforts she pursues with the brand,” according to Tyr. That included having Black hair stylists, makeup artists and models for shoots.

“Growing up, I didn’t see many representations of Black swimmers,” Manuel said. “Even now, with the age of social media, there aren’t many Black models or minority models that are used, and so it creates this narrative that only white people swim.”

Three days after George Floyd was killed in May, Manuel wrote in a lengthy Instagram post, “Times change. Calendar dates change, but racism still remains. If we want a better country, we ALL must fight for equality and justice. No one escapes the bonds of injustice.”

Manuel said she hoped for a day when she isn’t referred to as, “Simone the Black swimmer,” after her Rio Olympic success.

“Because the title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I’m not supposed to be able to break records,” she said in Brazil, “and that’s not true because I work just as hard as anybody else. I want to win just like everybody else.”

Manuel put in that work leading up to the 2019 World Championships. Her coach at Stanford, Greg Meehan, knew she was prepared for her schedule at that meet -- six events, including the 100m freestyle semifinals and the 4x200m free relay final on the night of July 25.

After Manuel’s subpar 100m free semifinal, Meehan estimated she had 45 minutes to ready mentally for the relay. The moment was significant, given her last two races: getting passed on anchor the night before and almost missing the 100m free final.

“The beauty of my relationship with Simone is we can call it what it is, just acknowledging that her 100m semifinal swim was a really lousy swim, and that’s OK, it happens,” Meehan said. “I’ve been coaching her for six years. I’ve learned I need to be direct.”

Meehan gave Manuel simple reminders from training for swimming twice in one session. Manuel then led off the relay in 1:56.09, a personal-best 200m free by .92 of a second. Australia again took gold, but, to Meehan, Manuel turned around her meet.

The next night, Manuel lined up for the 100m free final in lane one. She felt more pressure for that race than going into the Olympic final.

She exploded off the block. Manuel had the fastest reaction time, led by nearly a half-second at the 50-meter turn and held off the two fastest sprinters in history to win. She also hit another personal best. Another American record.

“If she didn’t have a great swim on the 800m free relay, I’m not sure she comes back the next night and wins the 100m free,” Meehan said, “and subsequently the 50m free.”

Manuel finished the meet with four golds and three silvers, becoming the first woman to earn seven medals at a single worlds. She could swim six events in Tokyo, as a medal favorite in all of them. No U.S. woman has won more than four gold medals at a single Olympics.

Back in Rio, a barely 20-year-old Manuel was thrust into a position of being the face of diversity in the sport. Whether she was ready for it or not.

Now, Manuel is a Stanford graduate with a degree in communication and a minor in African-American studies. She is speaking up more than ever, while spending most of the spring training in a backyard pool.

It was two lanes and 25 yards. Manuel in one lane. Katie Ledecky in the other. Meehan on the deck, realizing it was another pivotal time in Manuel’s career: sharing her voice and her message during the pandemic and since Floyd’s death.

Manuel accompanied words with action. She partnered with Hunger Not Impossible to provide meals around Houston. Manuel remembers 2005, when cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents who had lived in New Orleans went to stay in her family’s one-story house for months following Hurricane Katrina.

“There were so many people who reached out to my family within my church or the school system or the swim team that provided important essential necessities that we needed,” Manuel said. “This is exactly what I want to do for the world now.”

In the next 12 months, Manuel can make an even greater impact, reach a broader audience at the Tokyo Olympics. Another Simone Effect.

“My existence in the sport of swimming and the success that I’ve had in the sport of swimming is a protest in itself,” she said, “because I’m successful in a sport that, in some ways, people think that I shouldn’t be successful.”

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