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Simone Manuel details long road back from swimming break

Haughey wins 200m freestyle over Ledecky
Siobhan Haughey claims a new U.S. Open Swimming Championships record in the Women’s 200m Freestyle, finishing with a time of 1:54.20 and beating out Katie Ledecky.

Simone Manuel, the fastest female swimmer in American history, didn’t just slow down after the Tokyo Olympics. She stopped entirely for five months.

Her climb back reached last week’s Toyota U.S. Open in Greensboro, North Carolina. Manuel placed third, fourth and seventh in her three primary events with her best times since her return to competition last January.

She believes she is healed from overtraining syndrome, which she was diagnosed with in March 2021 and affected her through the last Olympic Trials and the Tokyo Games. She also dealt with depression, anxiety and insomnia that year.

“For the most part, I’m 100%,” she said last Friday. “I feel like I’ve been very brave and courageous through this experience.”

Manuel won nine gold medals between the 2017 and 2019 World Championships, including a female record seven total medals in 2019. She swept the 50m and 100m free world titles in 2019, races that crown the world’s fastest swimmer. She still holds the American record in both events.

At the Tokyo Olympic Trials, Manuel didn’t make the team in the 100m free, her 2016 Olympic gold-medal event. Afterward, she shared her physical and mental challenges in a tearful 24-minute press conference. Three days later, she won the 50m free in her last chance to make the team.

In a bit of foreshadowing, she said then that a doctor told her that she needed two months off to let her body rest. That was impossible in the immediate sense with the Olympics starting five weeks after trials.

In Tokyo, she anchored the U.S. to 4x100m free relay bronze, then tied for 11th in the 50m free.

“It sucks to say this, but it was not a fun experience to show up and know you’re not at your best,” she said. “You’re not healthy because you’re sick. Your emotions and hormones are out of whack. So you’re just sad and emotional, and I was captain, so I was trying to be there for my team, but I really didn’t have the energy to be there for my team because I knew that I needed to be there for myself.”

Manuel remembers boarding a flight home two days after her last race and speaking to a doctor two days after that.

“I was just tired, emotionally, physically,” she remembered. “I had nothing to give. I was depressed.”

The doctor asked Manuel how long she felt she needed away from swimming. Manuel said at least until January. The doctor agreed.

“He told me no physical activity,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything to get my heart rate up. He felt like the only way my body was going to heal was just complete and utter rest.”

Manuel’s exercise consisted of very light yoga or stretching in those first months. She chose to return to the pool at the start of 2022.

It began with solo swims at a 24 Hour Fitness near her college home of Stanford. By that April, she decided to move to Arizona to train under Bob Bowman, who was Michael Phelps’ career-long coach. She loaded a Budget truck that August.

Bowman had some experience with comebacks, including when Phelps came out of a one-year retirement in 2013. Manuel also cited 10-time Olympic medalist Allison Schmitt. Bowman coached Schmitt while she was open about her mental health journey, including depression, late in her career.

“He just knows how to have patience and work with athletes in challenging situations,” Manuel said.

Bowman said Manuel’s situation wasn’t comparable to any of his previous swimmers. He called it a “start from scratch.”

“She’s got a really hard fight ahead of her, and she needs to know what she’s up against, so we just spelled it out,” he said. “This is going to be a long and difficult process, frustrating, and it’s going to take way longer than you think it should take. And that’s really how it played out.”

Her training was planned in concert with her doctors. Her first sessions were 30 minutes, sometimes shorter. Her first full meet back was this past January. A late decision was made to skip the national championships in the spring.

“We knew if she went there, it would just be a lot of focus on her at that time,” Bowman said. “She just wasn’t quite ready.”

Now, Manuel is swimming up to two hours at a time, nine times per week. Her practices are split between Bowman’s group and that of Arizona State associate head coach Herbie Behm, who is more sprint-oriented.

She also recently launched the Simone Manuel Foundation, which supports BIPOC youth and promotes water safety in communities of color, and got married.

Then at last week’s U.S. Open, she was competitive with the top swimmers she’ll likely face at June’s Olympic Trials. Her 200m free time — 1:57.37 — would have made the relay pool for this past summer’s world championships.

“It took a whole year to kind of build her back, her physical self, and now she’s really good,” Bowman said. “She’s right where we’d like her to be. She’s slowly made progress in the pool, and we haven’t even seen yet in the pool what I think she’s capable of. Not even near it.”

Sitting near the deck, Manuel reflected on her results and said they were further proof that she is healed.

“I really have challenged myself,” she said. “There’s a lot of reasons to be really proud of myself.”