Simone Manuel is the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event. Houston, Texas, is having a momentous day after two of its most prominent Olympic athletes earned gold medals. Ironically, both are named Simone. Simone Manuel, 20, is from Sugar Land, Texas while Simone Biles is from Spring, both suburbs of Houston. Simone Biles won the all-around gold on Friday in women’s gymnastics, and Simone Manuel won the gold medal in the 100 meter freestyle. When asked about the other Simone, Manuel practically gushed. Team USA reported on her reaction to the question.
“Simone Biles and I are practically the same person! I met her a year ago, we’ve hung out a couple times. I’m very happy for how she’s done. We both bring medals back to Houston, Texas.”
As for Simone Manuel, she tied for first in the 100 meter freestyle with Penny Oleksiak, a 16-year-old Canadian swimmer. Both of them set a new Olympic record of 52.70. Third place went to Sarah Sjostrom from Sweden with a 52.99. In light of the recent racial divides in the U.S. over reports of police brutality and violence against police officers, Manuel said she hopes her gold medal will distract Americans at home from such tension and allow them to focus on something more positive.
“Coming into this race tonight, I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me, just being in this position. I’m super glad with the fact that I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport. But at the same time, I would like there to be a day where there are more of us, and it’s not Simone, the black swimmer. 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. That’s not true because I work just as hard as anybody else, and I love the sport. I want to win just like everybody else.”
Missy Franklin, her U.S. teammate, called Simone a “fearless swimmer.” It’s doubtful she’ll get any arguments, as Simone Manuel made a major splash in the 100 meter. Manuel competed against Bronte Campbell from Australia, and Bronte’s sister, Cate Campbell. Cate holds the current world record. Manuel took her fierce competition in stride and was off in a flash. Bronte took fourth, while Cate dropped to sixth, according to CBS News. Simone touched the wall ahead of them with her patriotically painted fingernails, at precisely the same moment Oleksiak reached it. Her victory earned her a second medal in Rio. On Sunday, she competed with the U.S. women to win a silver medal in the 4×100 free.
Simone Manuel says her two older brothers helped her develop her competitive nature and the courage to build upon it. They were both in the stands watching as she won her gold medal. Simone is five years younger than her brother Chris and three years younger than her brother Ryan. Ryan graduated from Southern Methodist University last year. Both brothers played basketball, and their younger sister tried hard to keep up with them. She just didn’t want to play basketball. Her reason? She was tall.
“I was always the tall one on the team,” she said, “so I was getting beat up a lot and I was not a fan of that.”
Simone Manuel found her love of swimming after her parents made sure that all three of their children knew how to swim. It was then that Simone found her niche. She hates sweating, and swimming is a sport where that doesn’t happen. As a high school swimmer, she was winning and setting records in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle events. After high school, she managed to defeat Missy Franklin in the 100 freestyle at the grand prix event in Santa Clara, California, which is now called the Arena Pro Swim Series.
During her freshman year of college at Stanford, she won two NCAA Division I titles in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle swims, while at the same time setting school records in the events. She’s clearly come into her own as a swimmer now that she’s medaled in the Rio games. Her tie with Oleksiak is only the third Olympic swimming race that led to the gold medal being shared. Neither of the two woman even knew they had tied at first. They both had their heads down, swimming ahead to beat the Campbell sisters.
“I looked up and saw dots on my blocks. I didn’t count how many. But I was like, oh, I’m on the medal stand. Then I turned around and saw the 1 by my name, and I was super surprised. After I stared at it for a little while, I realized that I had tied with Penny.”
Manuel is more than willing to share the glory with Oleksiak, and also generously gives credit to her U.S. teammate Lia Neal for pushing her hard during the past two years. She also managed to calm Simone by dancing and singing for her right before the 100 final. It’s Neal’s second Olympics. During her first, in London, she was on the 4×100 freestyle team who won bronze. Then on Sunday night, of course, they took silver in Rio. Simone says she and Lia Neal have a very special relationship and that she “wouldn’t be where I am right now without her.” After the 100 meter was over, she cried and gave her a hug, thanking her for everything she’s done for her.
Simone Manuel’s fans were all over social media, expressing delight over her victory. They also expressed frustration that NBC didn’t air her medal ceremony. Several of them shared photos and video of the ceremony, hoping to spread the glory of her moment.
Simone Manuel truly earned her recognition not only as the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event, but as an inspiration to all those beginning swimmers out there watching. Proud of Simone? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
[Photo by Natacha Pisarenko/AP Images]