Simone Manuel’s historic Olympic gold was a moment long in the making

The look on Simone Manuel’s face as she glanced back at the screen and realized she had won gold in the 100m freestyle will go down in Olympic history. Not only did she set an Olympic record time, but the 20-year old Texan also became the first African American woman to win individual Olympic gold in swimming.

It was a tight race, and Manuel, 20, was not supposed to win. The Australian sisters Bronte and Cate Campbell, the latter holding the world record, began as firm favorites. But after trailing on the turn, Manuel powered through the final meters to tie with Canadian Penny Oleksiak for the gold.

It was a moment long in the making.“I wouldn’t say last night surprised a lot of people,” Allison Beebe, who coached the Stanford student for seven years when she was a teenager, told the Guardian. “She’s an incredible athlete but it just pales in the comparison to the person she is.”

Manuel’s mother, Sharron, knew her daughter had a future in the sport when she was four years old. On her second day of swimming, she swam all the way across a 15m pool. She was hooked. She began competing in local recreational leagues in Sugar Land and Houston, Texas.

It took a few years before Manuel realized that there weren’t many other competitors who looked like her. One day she reportedly asked her mother to explain. They began researching to find out why.

“I think it was really helpful for her, because it enlightened her that the reason a lot of blacks haven’t been involved in swimming was that in the past we didn’t have access to facilities,” Sharron Manuel told the Washington Post last year.

A USA Swimming report from 2010 found that 69% of black children can’t swim, compared with 42% of white children. The rate at which black children drown is also three times higher than that of white children. Access to pools, having parents who can swim, and looking up to swimmers are all important factors in whether or not a child can swim, a 2008 survey by USA Swimming Foundation found.

But Rio marks the first Olympics where two black female athletes have competed together on the US swim team. Manuel journey to the Olympics with Lia Neal has been extensively documented in the Instagram videos series “Fleek Films” featuring “two lit gurls.”

At 11, when Manuel first began wondering about race, she joined the First Colony Swim Team in Houston, Texas and met Beebe, her coach for the next seven years.

Beebe was protective over Manuel after speaking to Maritza Correia, the first African American woman to win a medal in swimming, in Athens in 2004. “I spent a long time talking with Maritza,” Beebe said. “How the pressure that she felt, how difficult it made swimming for her – and that’s the last thing I ever wanted to do for Simone.”

Manuel had long idolized Correia, and Beebe connected them when Manuel was 13. They began speaking via email about swimming and life. Correia would become her mentor and help with some of the difficulties that come with being one of the few black athletes in a highly competitive sport.

“Maritza took her under her wing like a little sister,” Beebe said. “I think between Martiza, her mom, and me, we did our best to shield her from the pressure and expectations.”

But the pressure was there. In Rio, Manuel and Neal have consistently fielded questions from journalists about race.

“Just coming into this race I kind of tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me just being in this position,” Manuel said after she won the gold.

But she didn’t shy away from discussing difficult issues. “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” Manuel said in her post-race comments. “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.”

Manuel is a fierce competitor. Growing up, Beebe said, she hated to lose. When she started, she was raw, but her attention to detail grew and she established herself as a leader in her team. Still, Manuel had a pedigree. Between the ages of 11 and 18, she was the No1 in the nation in her age group for 50m and 100m freestyle and set a number of records.

“From a sprint standpoint, she might be the only one in American history to do that,” Beebe said. She never lost track.

Her family kept her grounded. Her parents considered her as a person who swam, not “Simone the swimmer,” Beebe said, which allowed her to remain grounded. It also helps that her two brothers are both college basketball players and were fiercely competitive with her.

“It didn’t matter if it was playing around in the pool, tying her shoes, doing the dishes, they were very competitive, very supportive as well,” Beebe said.

The past year has been among her most difficult. Manuel, who has been fortunate with injury for most of her career, was forced to undergo sinus surgery just a few weeks before trials. But Beebe was always confident she would get to this point. While many people thought her win was an upset, Beebe disagreed.

“She has always performed well on the big stage, she loves, she thrives on it, she trains for it,” Beebe said. “Most people didn’t believe, but Simone did and that’s all that matters.”

article by Mazin Sidahmed via The Guardian Magazine