By Tom Slear//Contributor | Wednesday, February 19, 2020
By the time Simone Manuel broke into swimming’s elite circle, most of the firsts for African American swimmers had been taken. Over a decade earlier, Anthony Ervin was the first to make an Olympic team and win a gold medal. Around the same time, Maritza (Correia) McClendon was the first to set a world record, an individual American record, and the first female African American to make an Olympic team.
The only first left for Manuel as she focused on the 2016 Olympics was a gold medal by an African American women. But the chances of that happening were iffy, at best. At the world championships in 2015, she was sixth in the 100 free, 1½ seconds behind the winner, Australian Bronte Campbell. In second was Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom, who earlier in the meet had set the world record in the 100 fly. In third was Bronte’s older sister Cate, the 2013 world champion in the 100 free. In fourth was Ranomi Kromowidjojo, the reigning Olympic 100 free champion from the Netherlands. All four would be in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics.
But Manuel had trait in her favor that she was about to spring on the world. She didn’t know how to lose. Greg Meehan, who has coached Manuel since she arrived at Stanford in 2014, describes it as the “ability to rise to the occasion in the most important moment.” Not a learned skill, he adds. You either have it or you don’t, and she definitely has it. He remembers clearly the 2015 NCAA’s, when Manuel was a freshman and she came from over a body length behind on the last leg of the 400 freestyle relay to win the race by more than a second and take the team to an American and NCAA record with a blistering 45.79 split. Meehan still shakes his head in disbelief. “The epitome of Simone,” he says.
In Rio de Janeiro, Manuel went into the final of the 100 free seeded third, four tenths of a second behind Cate Campbell, who had broken the long-standing world record in Australia just before the Olympics, and 16-year-old Canadian Penny Oleksiak, and five hundredths ahead of Sjostrom and 18 hundredths ahead of Bronte Campbell. Kromowidjojo was seeded seventh, three tenths behind Manuel. It was anybody’s race.
The Campbell sisters were in the lead through 75 meters, only to have Manuel come on at the end as Meehan has seen her do so many times before. Unbelievable. For much of the previous year, her training had been disrupted by multiple sinus infections. She was still enduring jolts of pain from a stress fracture in one of her ribs. Yet here she was swimming past the best in the world in the sport’s signature event.
Manuel tied Oleksiak for first with an Olympic record. Not only was she the first African American women to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming, but the first American women to win the Olympic 100 free since 1984. (That race finished in a dead heat as well).
And Manuel was just getting started. At the world championships in 2017, she beat Sjostrom for first place just five days after the Swede had broken Cate Campbell’s world record leading off Sweden’s 400 free relay. At the world championships last year, Manuel, swimming in lane one, improved her time by over a second from the semifinals to win the 100m free with an American record time, becoming just the second woman in history to defend her World Championship title in that event.