Big Bear Award of the Day: Simone Manuel

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By guest writer Julia Wilkinson-Minks (2008 & 2012 Canadian Olympian)

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, June 25. WHEN I was a young swimmer training in Stratford, Ontario, my club coach used to have what he called The Big Bear Award, an award he gave out to a deserving swimmer every once in a while after an exceptional practice that showed anything from talent, to guts, to tenacity. The award was given this name because it was always a two-dollar coin (a toonie), a coin in Canada that features a polar bear on the back. Although it was only two dollars, it was an honor to be recognized at the end of practice, and, you knew you could hit up the vending machine while you waited for mom or dad to pick you up.

I do not want to use the term “Swim of the Day”, because that seems so unfair. Obviously Missy Franklin had a fabulous swim, breaking the meet record and posting the second fastest time in the world this year (53.43) in an event that is not even her best.

So, instead of writing about my choice for the “Swim of the Day”, I want to give out my Big Bear Award to Simone Manuel for her 53.86, which earned her a bronze medal, in the 100-meter freestyle. This not only secured Manuel a spot on the team headed to Barcelona, but she was almost in position to swim the event individually as well. And she broke her own age group record to boot! Talk about outside smoke: Manuel swam a whole second faster than her race in prelims where she narrowly beat Olympic champion Allison Schmitt by four hundredths of a second for that eighth lane in finals. This really does prove that old, overused t-shirt slogan “If you've got a lane, you've got a chance.”

Now, I know that we have seen our fair share of young swimmers on the US National team: after all, the winner was only two years older than Manuel! But even though young swimmers have walked the international pool decks before, we can't stop celebrating it. It is a lot of pressure to walk out for a final at US Nationals, surrounded by multiple Olympians, as a sixteen-year old. In that one moment before you step on the blocks, you have to stop seeing those faces in your final as your idols. You have to see them as your enemies.

I'll never forget my first national final: Olympic trials 2004. I had just turned 17, and I was sitting in the ready room with my heroes, Joanne Malar and Marianne Limpert. I had had a poster of Malar on my wall for years at this point. I was terrified when I walked out, and needless to say, I came eighth in the race. I have the utmost respect for young swimmers who can march into their first major final and not only move up, but place third.

Julia Wilkinson-Minks is a two-time Olympian for Canada and was a finalist in the 200-meter IM at the 2008 Beijing Games. In 2010, she became Texas A&M's first ever NCAA champion in swimming when she won the 100-yard freestyle. She graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in Speech Communication. Julia retired from competitive swimming following the London Olympic Games and now lives in Texas with her husband Shane.

Follow her on twitter @juliah2o