It’s been 1,665 days since Simone Manuel claimed gold in the 100m freestyle at the 2016 Rio Olympics, becoming the first Black woman to win an Olympic swimming title.
Manuel, now 24, has accomplished plenty in the intervening four-plus years.
At the 2017 World Championships, she claimed six medals (including five gold). Two years later at the 2019 World Championships, she became the first American woman to sweep the 50m and 100m world titles. Thanks to her seven-medal haul (four gold, three silver) at that competition, she also broke the international record for most medals won by a female swimmer at a single world championships. These days, there is only one woman who owns more swimming world titles than Manuel, and that’s her teammate, Katie Ledecky.
Along the way, Manuel also had a standout career at Stanford, winning 14 individual NCAA titles and helping the Cardinal claim back-to-back NCAA team titles. She finished her last college course in March 2019 after walking at graduation in 2018. These days, the Texas native still lives in California and trains under her college coach, Greg Meehan.
This week, though, Manuel is back in Texas. She is set to compete at the TYR Pro Swim Series in San Antonio, her first meet in 362 days. She is on the start list in three events: the 50m free, 100m free, and 200m free, the same three events she expects to enter at U.S. Olympic Trials in June.
Despite Manuel’s more recent accomplishments, so many narratives about her remain tied to her 52.70-second swim in Rio (an American record that she has since broken, by the way).
“[Articles] always goes back to what happened in Rio… but there’s so much that I accomplished after that,” she explained last week. “Sometimes I think the Rio [performance] is seen as more important than the swim meet I just had.”
While Manuel knows that her identity as a Black woman is central to her story – and of particular importance to the next generation – she also wants to make sure her success isn’t treated like an anomaly.
“Being a black female swimmer is obviously a huge part of my identity, and an important part of my identity, especially when we’re talking about representation. I want to tell Black children, ‘You can swim. This is a sport that you can be successful in.'”
At this this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, Manuel has the potential to become the first American woman to win five gold medals at the same Olympic Games. And to make sure were clear on this: the first American woman – of any race, in any sport – to win five gold medals. (Ledecky and gymnast Simone Biles are also likely to find themselves within striking distance of this record, too.)
As Manuel’s career continues to unfold, she hopes stories about her don’t just focus on what her accomplishments mean in terms of her identity as a Black woman.
“At this point, a lot of my accomplishments will [automatically] be the first for the Black community,” she explained. “So [it’s also important] to let people know, ‘No, [Simone’s] not just one of the best Black swimmers that we’ve seen, but she is also one of the best American swimmers.'”
Or, as this writer would argue, one of the best athletes in any sport.
NBC Sports’ Megan Soisson contributed to this story.
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