By Djeny Mokondji
While it’s true that the 20- year-
old Simone Manuel wasn’t as well known as the other Olympic athlete named Simone (the powerhouse gy
mnast who has earned multiple gold medals in her field), she grabbed the spotlight after she tied for first place in the 100-meter freestyle last week, becoming the first African-American woman to seize an Olympic gold medal in swimming. She also won three more medals at the games, including a second gold over the weekend when she anchored the 400-meter medley relay. The victory earned Team USA its 1,000 gold medal. When she recognized her historic achievement, she leaned her head into her hands and broke down in tears. “I hope that I can be an inspiration to others so this medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find love and drive to get to this point,” she said. Manuel is from Houston, TX. She attends Stanford University and has a brother who played basketball at Southern Methodist University.
Eventually, Manuel was at the Olympics to uplift the torch for African-American swimmers and to break the stereotype that “African Americans can’t be good swimmers.” She acknowledged that the potential to make history weighed on her. “I definitely struggled with it a lot coming into the race tonight,” Manuel said afterward. “I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders; it’s something I carry with me being in this position. This medal is not just for me but for the African-Americans who came before me…and for the people who come behind me. I would like one day for there to be more of us, so that it’s not Simone the black swimmer because the title of black swimmer makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal, or not supposed to break records. That’s not true. I work just as hard as everybody else and I want to win just like everybody else.”
Not to mention, Manuel’s victory took on extra significance in a sport that still has few people of color, especially to a trend that has a complicated history, including segregated swimming pools and beaches, attacks against African-Americans at pools as well as socioeconomic forces that divided access to swimming pools along class lines, which led to a substantial majority of African-American young people and adults in the United States that cannot swim or are weak swimmers, according to the most recent research from USA Swimming, the sport’s national governing body. In the United States, it is estimated that about 70 percent of African-American children and adolescents cannot swim an entire length of a pool by themselves, a standard measure of swimming proficiency, and about 15 percent of these non-proficient swimmers cannot swim at all. Some of this anxiety is attributable to old Jim Crow laws, which restricted many pools to “whites only,” the study’s authors believe. As a result, many African-American families avoided swimming pools and, in the years since, did not enroll their own children in learn-to-swim programs. In an interview with TIME before the Games, Manuel said the racial tension that has roiled the nation affects her, and that she sees the Olympic spotlight as a way for her to do her small part. Manuel even mentioned “some of the issues with police brutality.” “I think that this win helps bring hope and change to some of the issues that are going on in the world, but I mean, I went out there and swam as fast as I could and my color just comes with the territory,” Manuel also said.“I’m hoping what I can do in Rio is giving some people hope that even though there are some tough things going on in the world, you just have to keep fighting,” Manuel told TIME. “Our ancestors did. What we do [now] is a reflection of what they have done for us. It’s also a platform for what will happen in the future. We just have to keep fighting and persevering to try to make change.” The significance of Simone Manuel’s swim is clear if you know Jim crow.