Olympic: Simone Manuel wins historic gold medal

Simone Manuel
The tears trickled down her cheek immediately after she
sang two words: “Gave proof.” Whether it just a neat bit of timing or
her recognizing the history she made, it was perfect that Simone Manuel,
standing atop an Olympic podium, a gold medal hanging from her neck,
the first black American female swimmer to have won one, happened to
melt at the precise moment in “The Star-Spangled Banner” that
encapsulated her night.


Gave
proof. She didn’t just give it to black Americans. Reducing Thursday to
that would be wrong. What Manuel did at the Rio Games’ Olympic Aquatics
Stadium – storm back from a deficit in the 100-meter freestyle mad
dash, set the Olympic record in 52.70 seconds and tie 16-year-old
Canadian Penny Oleksiak for the rare two-gold race – was give it to
Americans, period.

The
history of black Americans and swimming is a microcosm of the
institutional racism that held back the United States for so long and
still percolates in society today. The perception that black people
can’t swim is ignorant; the reality that black people don’t swim is
closer to the truth – USA Swimming estimates 70 percent of black
children don’t know how to swim and the CDC says they’re 5½ times
likelier to drown than white kids – and it’s a symptom of the errors of
our forebears. Errors that someone like Simone Manuel is going a long
way to erase.

Understand,
this dates back nearly 100 years, to the public-swimming boom of the
1920s and ’30s, when pools shot up across the United States. Segregation
kept black Americans from joining. Pools shot up in black communities
after integration, but they were often of poor quality and minimal size.
Generations of black Americans could have learned to swim just as well
as anyone. They were simply denied the proper opportunities to do so.

Manuel
wasn’t. She grew up in an upper-middle class suburb of Houston. She
danced and swam. When she was 10, she was urged to specialize. She chose
Houston. And as she grew into an elite sprinter and matriculated to
Stanford and stood on the 100 free podium at the NCAA championships with
two other black girls and prepared for Rio, she did so with the duality
of wanting to win for all those before her who proved black kids can’t
just swim but do so at a world-class level while not trying to
pigeonhole herself as the girl defined by her race because the mistakes
of past generations put her in the position to be the first at
something.

“That’s
something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot, just coming into this
race tonight,” Manuel said. “I kind of tried to take the weight of the
black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me
just being in this position. I do kind of hope it goes away. I’m super
glad with the fact that I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully
diversify the sport. But, at the same time, I would like there to be a
day where there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone, the black swimmer.’

“The
title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to
win a gold medal or I’m not supposed to be able to break records.
That’s not true because I work just as hard as anybody else and I love
the sport and I want to win just like everybody else.”

When
Manuel popped up from the water Thursday and turned around to see the
scoreboard, her lower lip trembled. Then she realized what she’d done,
and her jaw dropped, literally. Her left hand shot out of the water and
covered her mouth. She stormed back from third place at the turn to tie
Oleksiak, to beat Australian Cate Campbell, to call herself Olympic
champion.

She
wept when she exited the pool, lost it when she celebrated with her
friends and couldn’t hold back the two tears, one dripping down her left
cheek and another her right, as she sang the anthem. Unwittingly,
Manuel had shown something far more important than her ability to beat
the best swimmers in the world or that a black swimmer could win Olympic
gold.

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