How Simone Manuel Swam Past Every Adversity to Make Her Return Trip to the Olympics

Expected to be the face of U.S. swimming at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Simone Manuel instead had to fight hard just to claim her spot. Here's why that made her prouder than ever.

By Sarah Grossbart Jul 18, 2021 3:00 PMTags

The feelings were coming in as fast and furiously as Simone Manuel tackled that 50-meter free. 

For starters, the Olympian was thankful. Thankful that she'd calmly executed at the U.S. Olympic Trials in the face of overwhelming stress and a very private physical battle. With everything on the line, she raced her way past all the competition just days after a ninth-place finish in the 100m—the event that earned her a history-making gold medal in Rio five years earlier—put her Olympic dreams in jeopardy. But also, as she put it in her June 21 Instagram post, she was "thankful to so many of you for believing in me when I needed it the most."

She was proud of herself, too: "Proud of my fight, grit, and courage to face my fears," she continued, "but most importantly, proud to walk away with my head held high regardless of victory or defeat."

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There was also a touch of excitement about officially cementing her place at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, kicking off a year later than planned July 23. And, if she's being real, a whole heap of exhaustion, the same overwhelming fatigue she's been facing since receiving that diagnosis of overtraining syndrome in March that seriously hampered her plans for a repeat gold model. 

Joked Simone in her post, "I'm ready to finally get some sleep." 

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She's certainly earned the rest. 

At just 24, Simone has amassed a resume that proves—much like another Texas-bred Simone—she's one of the greatest of all time: Back-to-back world titles in the 100m freestyle in 2017 and 2019, plus another medal for winning the 50m, making her the first American woman to complete that particular sweep. Add in another six gold, three silver and one bronze World Championship medals and a total of four Olympic medals and the only female swimmer outpacing her in career swimming international titles is her friend and frequent roommate Katie Ledecky.  

It's a stretch of success she's been working toward for the past 20-plus years. 

It was at a trip to a waterpark near their Sugar Land, Texas home that pharmacist mom Sharron—a two-sport athlete in high school—and business analyst dad Marc—a 6-foot-5 center who averaged 15 points per game at Xavier University of Louisiana—had something of an a-ha moment. "The second we put her in the water, she splashed and splashed and splashed," Sharron recalled to Sugar Land Magazine. "It was like a transformation."

By age 3 Simone was boldly jumping off the diving board and the next year, when older brothers Christopher and Ryan—who would eventually go on to college basketball careers of their own—signed up for the team at Houston Swim Club, she begged to tag along. 

Her mom signed her up for lessons instead and by the second day, she'd swam the whole length of the pool. For the next six weeks, Sharron detailed to local outlet Fort Bend Focus, "Simone would get up every day and get herself ready. She was so happy to go to swim practice."

Despite flirtations with dance, basketball, volleyball, soccer and Girl Scouts, Simone didn't waver from her first love. 

"Simone never complained," Sharron continued. "She hated to miss swim practice even when she was sore or tired. She never said she didn't want to go to practice. At an early age, Simone would set a goal and was willing to work hard to reach her goal and have that delayed gratification."

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That continued even after her first trip to the Olympics in 2016. By then, the Austin High School grad was already two years into her career at Stanford University where, together with fellow Olympian Katie Ledecky, she would lead the Cardinal to two NCAA team championships along with her six individual wins, coming out on top in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle each year she competed.

So she'd long since mastered the sort of laser focus required to be the person who taps the wall first. 

Sharron invited her daughter to explore Rio with the family during her breaks from training, recalling Simone's response to the Fort Bend Focus: "I am here as an athlete to compete, not as a sightseer."

She got the job done in memorable fashion, becoming the first Black woman to win an individual swimming medal, she and Canada's Penny Oleksiak tying for first in then 100m with the world record time of 52.7. 

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"It means a lot—this medal is not just for me, it's for a whole bunch of people who have came before me and been an inspiration to me," she told NBC News post-race. "It's for all the people who come after me who believe they can't do it. And I just want to be inspiration to others that you can do it."

Her goal, she continued, was simple: "I definitely wanna go out there and swim fast for Team USA, and having everybody swim fast makes me wanna swim fast."

But soon it was clear her job would require more than just being the quickest one down the lane.

While her teammates fielded questions about practice schedules and the music they used to get pumped up, Simone was expected to serve as the unofficial spokesperson for diversity in swimming, constantly being asked about how the predominately white sport could become more inclusive. 

"I don't ever feel annoyed about answering the question because I do think that it is important to talk about," she shared with Changing the Game host Nancy Armour last summer. "I think what becomes exhausting is being the only one, where I feel like questions generally are geared to me to answer...When I'm in a press conference and I'm asked, 'Simone, you champion diversity, inclusion and equality. Why is that important?' I genuinely believe that every other swimmer that is next to me whether they're white, Black, Asian, they need to answer that question."

Because, as she continued, "Shouldn't diversity, equality and inclusion be important to all of us? It can't just be important to Black people. That's what gets exhausting to me, because I feel like the questions that I'm asked to answer, I feel like everyone should be educated on how to answer them."

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Meanwhile, the pandemic prevented her from seeing her Texas-based family for more than a year and closed down Stanford's facilities, forcing her to scramble to find a backyard pool for training. And add to that last summer's long overdue racial reckoning, spurred on, in part, by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the mental exhaustion was very real. 

Simone was on the front lines—posting messages about being Black in America and the continued inequality. "These are conversations I've had with my parents for years," she explained to Sports Illustrated. "I've always had a drive to want to speak out loudly. But I think it's more accepted to speak your truth now, without people saying, 'Uh, no-no, that can't be true, that couldn't have happened, that can't be racist.'"

But it was still a struggle, she admitted during a press conference after that heart-wrenching June 17 100m loss. "This last year for the Black community has been brutal," she said. "It's not something I can ignore. It was just another factor that can influence you mentally in a draining way."

Though, that part of it, at least, wasn't new to her.

She was just 12 when she strongly considered hanging up her swim cap, fed up with the pointed questions about why she had chosen swimming rather than track or basketball, tired of being the only Black girl on the swim team, the only one not invited to the birthday party. 

With the help of her mother and the Internet, she studied the stories of the Black swimmers who came before her. "Their triumphs inspired me," she wrote in a 2018 essay for The Undefeated. "When I felt like quitting, I thought about Cullen Jones, Tanica Jamison, Sabir Muhammad, Maritza Correia (now a good friend of mine)."

It's a practice she's continued over the years as the stereotypes remain, telling People last July, "It's just another part of my journey, and I know that I'm not the only one that has had to deal with some of these experiences that I've dealt with."

But what happened this past winter put her in entirely unfamiliar territory.  

The symptoms started in January: Elevated heart rate, fatigue, depression. "My body wasn't doing what it was capable of," she explained to reporters in that June 17 press conference, detailing exactly why her worst fears had come to pass. "It got to the point that I didn't even feel like going to the pool."

By the time the overtraining syndrome diagnosis came in late March, Simone said, "Just walking up the stairs to the pool, I was gassed. Workouts that seemed to be easier were really hard."

Basically, she was burned-out at the worst possible time, with her expected dominance at her second Olympic games just months away. 

So she followed doctor's orders to spend three weeks out of the pool, visiting family in Texas and focusing on the launch of TOGETHXR, a collaboration with Alex Morgan, Sue Bird and Chloe Kim aimed at amplifying women's stories.  

Michael Sohn/AP/Shutterstock

When she returned to practice in April, she was far from full-speed ahead, struggling through sessions and rarely getting in the full-workout, calling that final push "an uphill climb." 

Entering the Olympic trials in Omaha this June, Simone was cautiously hopeful. "My faith is extremely important to me, so I think I was having a lot of moments where I was just telling myself to believe," she told reporters. "Of course, you know in the back of your head this is a realistic voice saying, 'OK, but you've only been in the water for eight weeks, and you are about to swim at Olympic trials.'"

Ultimately, her 54.17 finish in the semifinals of the 100m—that left her just 0.02 seconds away from a spot in the finals—"was the best I could be today, in this moment," the current American record holder admitted to reporters, as she fielded questions for 24 unflinching minutes. "That's a tough pill to swallow, but what makes it easier to swallow is that I went out there and did my best."

Ever the fighter, she found a silver lining in her struggle that shined brighter than any of her four Olympic medals. 

"I haven't quite processed it completely, but the one thing I have processed is that I am proud of myself," she said. "I did everything I possibly could have done to set myself up to be my very best at this meet."

With the 50m trial still ahead, the June 20 race that would ultimately punch her ticket to Tokyo, she vowed, "This isn't the last time I'm going to do something great in the pool. I'm confident in that." 

But the many victories still to come are almost beside the point. The Stanford grad—set to turn 25 on Aug. 2, just one day after the Olympic swimming events wrap up with the women's 50m freestyle final—is already celebrating. 

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"I sometimes don't feel like I sit back and appreciate what I've done," she explained at the press conference. "This was the first time I showed up to a meet—and before I even dove in to do a race—I was proud of myself. I think that's a big step. And I hope that inspires more athletes to feel that way—I don't think I'm alone in thinking that we don't feel so proud of ourselves until we accomplish something great. That's what's giving me peace. I know I've given everything I possibly could to even be here. I continued to stay strong in this process, even when there were times I wanted to give up."

Spoken like a true winner.

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