The unfair burden placed on Simone Manuel

Swimmer Simone Manuel looking at her result in the 100m freestyle at U.S. Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska
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On Sunday night, four-time Olympic medalist Simone Manuel won the women’s 50m freestyle, earning a spot on her second Olympic team.

Earlier at U.S. Olympic Trials, Manuel placed ninth in the 100m freestyle. Following that result, Manuel gave a press conference in which she detailed the struggles she dealt with in the lead-up to U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials.

If you know just one thing about Simone Manuel, it’s probably that she won gold in the women’s 100m freestyle at the 2016 Rio Olympics. In doing so, she became the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming.

But Manuel, 24, has won far more than just that single medal. In fact, she owns two Olympic gold medals, as well as two silver.

In the five years since Rio, she has established herself as the most dominant freestyle sprinter in women’s swimming, winning back-to-back world titles in the 100m free in 2017 and 2019.

Also in 2019? She became the first American woman to sweep the 50m free and 100m free world titles. And she was a member of two world record-breaking relay teams. And she broke the record for most medals earned by a female swimmer at a single worlds (7).

To date, there is only one woman who has won more career swimming world titles than Manuel. And that’s her Stanford teammate and current training mate, Katie Ledecky.

Simone Manuel is one of the greatest swimmers of all time. Full stop.

And earlier this week, Manuel showed even greater strength outside of the pool.

On Thursday night at U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, Manuel missed the final of the women’s 100m free by 0.02 seconds – the event in which she is a defending Olympic gold medalist, two-time reigning world champion, and American record holder.

She then sat down in front of a group of reporters and spoke for 24 minutes.

“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.”

Manuel revealed that – after experiencing symptoms that included increased heart rate, insomnia, depression, anxiety, and soreness – she was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome in March. “It was something I didn’t quite notice until my body completely crashed,” she explained.

Manuel took three weeks off from training and flew home to Texas to spend time with her family. She returned to the pool on April 17, and said training for Trials was “an uphill climb.”

Entering this week’s competition, Manuel relied on her faith. “I just was going to go out there [aiming to] do my best. And my best could have been really good. And unfortunately it wasn’t.”

But Manuel, who has spoken often about the importance of representation in what is still a predominantly white sport, knows that being open about her recent struggles is just one more way she can have an impact.

“I want to inspire others: taking care of your body, focusing on mental health,” she said. “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.”

Near the end of Thursday night’s press conference, Manuel also cited the Covid-19 pandemic – which kept her from seeing her family for over a year – as well as her experience as a Black woman as having contributed to her overall feeling of exhaustion.

“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.”

The unfair burden placed on Simone Manuel

As I listened to Manuel, I found myself asking: as a white reporter, how much did I contribute to this?

Since Manuel competed at the Rio Olympics, she has become the spokesperson for diversity in swimming. In nearly every interview, she is asked to detail her experiences as a Black swimmer or provide suggestions for how the sport can become more inclusive.

While Manuel’s voice is crucial to these conversations, it too often it feels like she alone is being asked to diversify swimming. But it should not be the responsibility of Black people to make predominantly white spaces more inclusive.

Last summer, Manuel appeared on “Changing the Game,” a podcast hosted by USA Today reporter Nancy Armour.

On being asked constantly to speak about race, Manuel said:

I don’t ever feel annoyed about answering the question because I do think that it is important to talk about. 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.

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.

And yet, nearly a year after that episode first aired, Manuel is still being asked to carry more than her fair share of the load.

Before this week’s U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials began, USA Swimming made six athletes available for press conferences: Ryan Murphy, Caeleb Dressel, Ryan Lochte, Lilly King, Ledecky, and Manuel.

Of those six swimmers, only one was asked about the racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s murder. Only one was asked about the responsibility they feel to speak up about racial justice. Only one was asked to address the importance of diversity in swimming.

Any guesses who?

While I cannot begin to understand how exhausting it must be for Manuel to constantly be asked questions like these, I can commit to not putting the burden solely on her in the future. I hope my fellow reporters will join me.

Because if Manuel made one thing clear during her press conference, it’s that she still has more to accomplish.

“Maybe it didn’t happen today, but this isn’t the last time you’re going to see me, and this isn’t the last time I’m going to do something great in the pool. I’m confident in that.”

RELATED: U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials Schedule

Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC