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Black History Month: After Inspirational Swim, Manuel Now Looking Forward to NCAAs

2/9/2017

Simone Manuel gets ready for a college meet against USC in 2017. (Large)By Jeff Commings//Contributor

Moments after becoming the first African-American female swimmer to win Olympic gold in an individual event, Simone Manuel said she hoped her performance helped inspire people to reach goals they previously thought were unreachable.

 

It didn’t take long for the 20-year-old to hear firsthand how she was able to impact a generation of young dreamers with her gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle (which she shared with Canadian Penny Oleksiak). Two weeks after her historic week in Rio (which included a relay gold and two silver medals), she met hundreds of cheering kids at the Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day in New York and showed off her Olympic hardware.

“I loved interacting with the kids because they genuinely tell you that you’re an inspiration to them,” Manuel said. “After that, (I understood) that my 52-second race brought meaning to these people’s lives. It’s something I’m getting used to, but it’s starting to make sense.”

Simone Manuel poses with her gold medals. (Medium)Spending a day with adoring fans was part of a whirlwind of opportunities for Manuel after the Olympics. She met with President Obama at the White House with other Olympic teammates, did interviews on national talk shows and appeared on various programs during a frenzied day at the ESPN headquarters.

“People sharing their kind thoughts and words with me made the process easier,” she said.

Manuel has been extremely busy this season at Stanford, which has helped her return to a sense of normalcy. She’s considering a degree in communications – a decision fueled by her post-Olympics media tour that allowed her to see the inner workings of television broadcasting – and she is one of the leaders of a Stanford squad that is poised to win the NCAA team title after finishing third in 2015 and second in 2016. She said her performances at the Olympics didn’t play much of a role in shaping her collegiate swimming goals this season or put any added pressure on herself, but redshirting last season has made her hungry to contribute to the team this year.

“I’ve been enjoying the college team and being able to go to travel meets and being immersed in that environment,” she said. “I’m trying to be an active leader on the team, as opposed to being individually-oriented when I was getting ready for the Olympics.”

In what will be her second appearance at the NCAA championships, Manuel is looking to win the 50- and 100-yard freestyles again and get the Stanford Cardinal on top of the podium in multiple relays. Alongside freshman teammate Katie Ledecky, Manuel will be a strong force in the 200-yard freestyle as well.

Manuel said the goal of obtaining that coveted NCAA team trophy is a daily focus in Palo Alto as the team “focuses on the process of getting better each day and getting better at each competition.” Though hard work is a priority, Manuel said the primary objective is “just having a good time with each other.”

One of the biggest headlines to come from Manuel’s last appearance at the NCAA championships in 2015 was winning the 100 freestyle ahead of Lia Neal and Natalie Hinds, the first time three African-American swimmers stood at the top of the podium in a major championship meet. As proud as Manuel is of the discussions that follow such accomplishments – and the inspiration it creates – she hopes for a day when a minority swimmer’s performance is noteworthy for the swim and not the color of the athlete’s skin.

“I think it’s going to happen when it becomes normal … to see what I accomplished,” she said. “I know the impact (my swim) has on the black community, especially in swimming, but I hope the accomplishment in itself … inspires all people who believe that they don’t fit into a certain mold, or people that can’t believe they can achieve something.”