By Bob Schaller//Correspondent | Monday, February 8, 2016
To celebrate diversity and honor Black History Month, 20 Question Extra each Monday in February features an African-American swimmer who is charting their own history. Stanford’s Simone Manuel started pioneering a path as a teenager. The Texas native lead a podium sweep at NCAAs in the 100, as the National Teamer won gold. She explains her feeling about diversity, and her role in pushing the sport -- and the country -- forward, in this week’s 20 Question Extra.
1. Your Mom researched with you African-American swimmers when you first got into the sport -- what did that do for you?Simone: I am definitely thankful for that. It definitely helped me a lot with my confidence. I have a lot more to offer in terms of who I am and what I hope to do as a person, but it does mean something special that my race can inspire other people. So when my Mother searched the history and explained to me about the early black leaders in the sport, it made me more comfortable.
2. How much did you, Lia Neal and Natalie Hinds going 1-2-3 at NCAA Championships mean to you?
Simone: That experience meant a lot. That both of those women, along with myself, were able to make history shows how far the sport has come. But it’s also a realization that we have a long way to go -- that was a starting point, not a finish line.
3. When you started in Texas, were there swimmers of other races?
Simone: No, there was not a huge diversity. I started when I was 4 and that was swim lessons, and then I got more into the sport when I was 9. At that point we did not have a lot of diversity, but we did have some outstanding swimmers to look up to -- Cullen Jones and Maritza Correia in particular. I met Maritza through my (club) Coach Allison Beebe.
4. You and Lia are so inspiring in the pool -- you appear to have a lot of fun together -- what’s that come from?
Simone: I think it’s just we just love what we do. So when we are swimming we are very happy. We are having a good time. Our personalities kind of speak to our successes -- you can see our love for the sport and that we care about each other, our commitment to working hard and making our school and families proud.
5. A lot of it comes back to family for you whenever we talk, doesn’t it?
Simone: Yes, well my parents taught us to try our best with everything. When you set yourself to a higher standard, and think, “How far can I push myself?” you are going to focus on goals, not limits. The competitive side of you sets in, whether it’s academics or athletics, and you just see these opportunities to make yourself better - to be the best you can be. Everyone else wants to win, so the intensity and consistency of that commitment is what will set you apart.
6. Speaking of which, being the youngest, you had two older brothers who also set a high standard for hard work, didn’t they?
Simone: Yes, I am fortunate that I have two older brothers and they have definitely helped me with being competitive just to keep up with them. But one of the keys was that our parents did treat us as individuals, which I think was important in encouraging us to find our own path and embrace a unique journey. My brothers took the path of basketball, but we were always encouraged to try what we wanted to do. As long as we tried our hardest and did the best we could, it didn’t matter what we did. I think that was very helpful, and very important to have that support no matter what -- that they never told us what to do.
7. How did you handle the diversity issue?
Simone: My parents definitely helped a lot with that -- my parents, and my club coach, Allison. It was great because Allison brought up USA Swimming’s Diversity Select Camp. So especially after that camp, I really realized the importance of who I am -- and I mean that in a way of humility, that as an African American I have a role in helping grow the sport. So being able to articulate that is important because I had to understand what comes with my background and how it can impact people. A lot of people who have supported me think that diversity is a big deal, and so do I -- so part of my role is to help others and the sport of swimming.
8. And the work is not just for competitive swimming, is it?
Simone: No, definitely not. That’s definitely why my parents put me in swim lessons, to be water safe. Hearing the statistics about how many minorities have drowned provides an important opportunity to make a difference. We need to provide the resources and opportunity to get these kids the skills to swim, to get them in the water. And once they have swimming as a life-saving skill, they will, like a lot of us, see how great it is as a sport, and might pursue it further. But the most important thing is water safety. Whether they have success competing or even pursue that isn’t as important as it is to teach them how to swim and save lives.
9. How are you inspired now in your second year at Stanford?
Simone: Stanford. I think it’s definitely very inspiring to be at Stanford, especially to be in classes with these great thinkers, great athletes, these great minds that start companies, or have invested in start-ups -- that definitely challenges you to be your best every day. So I knew that I was going to Stanford and it is a great school, but it was still a surprise to see; not only was it everything I had heard about, but actually a lot more than that. It’s just so amazing to be around these amazing and intelligent people.
10. What was the feeling when you earned admission?
Simone: It definitely meant a lot. You hear about the standards at Stanford, and that’s a pretty special, meaningful moment. You have to work hard and be pretty smart to get into a school like this -- but honestly, that’s another reason why I picked it, because I wanted to be in this atmosphere and challenge myself.
11. Speaking of diversity, there’s someone from everywhere, all races and ethnicities, isn’t there, at your university?
Simone: Oh yes, and I love it, because I have made some of my best friends here. It challenges me academically and athletically, and socially I get to be around such different people, though we also have something in common by being here.
12. And the coast nearby plus a little less dry heat than Texas in the summer?
Simone: I have to admit (laughs) that I love the weather. And the campus is beautiful. The resources here are tremendous so there’s really nothing you would complain about -- except that my parents are so far away! But there is everything you can ask for here, and it’s up to you to make the most of it.
13. How is your training going -- I didn’t see you in Austin?
Simone: Pretty good. There are always bumps in the road. I got a little sick during Christmas training, but I am definitely healthy now. It was kind of a bummer to miss Austin, but I was able to train really hard at home and work on different parts of my races. I have been giving the 100 free and 200 free equal attention, just working super hard, getting pretty sore, staying in the ice bath (laughs), and hopefully the next five months this will continue.
14. So you are planning to swim the 200 free?
Simone: I can definitely say the 200 free is something I am still working on, and it really helps my 100 free, just like my 100 free helps my 50 free. I like the challenge of the 200. And I really like training for the 200, so we’ll just have to see how it goes.
15. We talked about Lia earlier -- with her being an Olympian, how much does she motivate you?
Simone: I just love her a lot, what a great person. She is a great training partner. We mesh very well. We are two people who are very different in that I am a little more outgoing and she is more reserved, though we reverse those roles sometimes and are (laughs) just the opposite. She’s also great to shop with, and with the team we enjoy dancing a lot! Plus Lia has great taste in music. She’s just really one of those friends who you have a great time with because she’s so responsible and accountable, whether you are in or outside of practice.
16. Do you think a lot about Black History, especially this month as it is celebrated?
Simone: I do think about black history a lot. Last year I actually lived in a black-themed dorm, so I was able to learn even more and that added value to the experience of being here. I was raised with a lot of social awareness. So black history means a lot to me. Hopefully I can be part of the month every year in ways to help make a difference, because we do need to break down barriers, and communicate cultures and norms to get to greater understandings.
17. Has training at Stanford been what you hoped with Coach Greg Meehan?
Simone: It’s a great situation, not just Coach Meehan but also Tracy Duchac -- they are amazing coaches. The coaches are very encouraging and helping, yet open to suggestions – so now I throw my ideas (laughs) at them. The team is awesome. It’s a process designed to get more input from us as we mature and take ownership of it, so that’s part of the journey here that I really like.
18. We talk about empowering people in different ways with resources, but does swimming itself empower you?
Simone: I think it does empower me, just in the sense that I didn’t really know how much or if I inspired people -- if anyone really noticed -- until after NCAAs last year and that whole situation with Natalie Hinds, Lia and myself. That’s the first time I heard, “You really inspired me,” and yes, of course that was empowering, but also motivating to keep going. When I was younger, I didn’t want to be called the black swimmer, or the African-American swimmer, because I was doing what everyone else was doing, so I didn’t see a difference. But I do realize that who I am and what I am doing does carry some weight and can show people that if I can do, they can do it too. And I didn’t really think of anyone relating to the trials and tribulations I went through until people started looking up to me, and I realized others have felt or are feeling alone, too.
19. That is heartbreaking to hear -- feeling alone, how did that affect you?
Simone: Sometimes it was just very hard to fit in. Usually you migrate to people you are comfortable with -- most times it is someone who looks like you, which of course can be seen as part of the problem. So being the only (black) there, I would often spend some time alone. And I still hear first “Are you in track,” “Do you play basketball” or “Are you on the soccer team?” -- unless they have seen me compete, they do not guess that I swim. And when I do tell them I swim, sometimes they laugh and say, “Haha, okay, she’s kidding -- what do you really play?’’ I worked with a personal trainer and people would ask me if I competed in track, and when I told them swimming, they’d tell me I should compete in track because of my legs! Or they ask, “Why would you swim?” And there were times I would think about it; why am I doing this? And the answer is, because I love it, because I am good at it, and because now I know me doing it is making a difference for a lot of people I maybe haven’t met yet. A lot of people go through a lot more than I did to lead the way, and I got a lot of support from parents and coaches during those hard times. But that’s what makes it mean more as the sport moves forward and the diversity increases, so other kids don’t have to keep feeling that way ever again.
20. What does Dr. Martin Luther King mean to you?
Simone: Martin Luther King means a lot. He fought for equal rights for everyone, it did not matter what color you are. We are all here for a purpose. There’s no this person can do only this or do only that; we all have the ability to do what our heart desires as long as we work for it and fight for it. Dr. King was testimony to that, look at what a difference he made and how many he continues to inspire in a life cut far too short. He is the role model for the dream, that you can do whatever you want to do, no matter who you are, where you are from, your religion, or the color of your skin.