“…Where are all the people that look like me?” a curious 12-year-old Simone Manuel asked her Mother.
That question marked one of the earliest memories Manuel had of realizing she was different. Manuel was a naturally gifted swimmer and advanced quickly in the sport. Much like children that skip grades due to being gifted academically, Manuel had to swiftly adjust to training with older kids. Sadly, that is not the only things she was forced to adjust to.
In an interview Manuel revealed that she had been discouraged from becoming a swimmer as a child.
“People told me I couldn’t be a swimmer… that I should be in a different sport,” she explained “I’ve had people laugh at me.”
Manuel described her athletic build as tall, muscular, and black.
She recalled people saying things to her like, “You must play basketball” or “I bet you run track, right?”
She was constantly questioned and this opened the door to doubt as it slowly chipped away at her confidence.
“I didn’t feel like I belonged,” Manuel said, “That was really difficult growing up because when people question something that you’re passionate about, you start to doubt yourself.”
She was up against the stigma that “black people don’t swim.” That particular stereotype was birthed from discrimination and a lack of access to pools which simply kept black people out of the water. The racial underpinnings of swimming have had severe consequences. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) the rates of fatal drowning incidents for black children between the ages of 4-14 are 3 times as high as their white counterparts. In time, Manuel came to understand that racism lay at the root of these assumptions and questions. Thankfully, Manuel had parents that supported her throughout her swimming journey and took the time to research other black swimmers so she could remain encouraged and inspired.
In a piece penned by Manuel titled ‘A Letter to My Younger Self’, she shared, “When I felt like quitting, I thought about Cullen Jones, Tanica Jamison, Sabir Muhammad, Maritza Correia (now a good friend of mine). Their stories taught me that my own success was bigger than me, that my dreams should never be limited by the assumptions of others. I was here to carve my own path, to widen the lane for others.”
“Society is saying ‘this is the blueprint for what an African-American woman should be good at.’ I feel like my story has defied barriers,” Manuel said. “Being a role model is a privilege, but it’s also a responsibility.”
Not only was Manuel in a space systematically designed to keep her out, she was also excelling.
During the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio at the age of 20, Manuel tied for first place with Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak. They shared first place honors and a gold medal after clocking in with a time of 52.70 in the 100m freestyle. Gold medalist Manuel set both an American and Olympic record. Manuel made history after becoming the very first African American woman to win an Olympic medal as an individual in a swimming event.
“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,” she said post-win.
“I’m super glad with the fact that I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport,” she went on to say. “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.”
There she was. A gold medalist at the pinnacle of her craft attaining the sports highest achievement and yet the world still found ways to minimize her skills and efforts by reducing her to whatever fit their agenda best. Manuel took a page from the book of another champion that she admires, Serena Williams, who handles the pitfalls and inequalities of being an incredible athlete while black in a predominantly white sport so gracefully. She understands that as a black woman she will be subjected to questions that some of her peers will never be asked. Manuel knew then and knows now that she so much more than “the black swimmer.”
At the 2019 World Swimming Championship in Gwangju, South Korea, Manuel became the first American woman to sweep the 50 and 100 freestyle races. She anchored the 4×100 medley relay ushering the U.S. team into a victory. That team now holds the world record with a time of 3:50.40. In total, Manuel came away with 4 gold medals and 6 silver medals.
She has now won 16 medals in total and is two wins away from tying Katie Ledecky who is currently the most decorated female swimmer in history.
Post-meet Manuel tweeted: “By no means was this a perfect meet, but that’s okay. I had to bounce back from adversity and trust in God’s plan. Failure isn’t final IF you stay the course and keep fighting. I’m pretty dang proud of myself. All glory to God. Always an honor to be a part of Team USA!!”
It is a fact that representation matters. As the school year nears, it’s important to highlight members of the community that show kids what is possible. While the world may say something different, the truth is there is no limitation to what you can achieve or what space you can be in.
That being said, it’s time to dive in.