Sprint History Awaits Simone Manuel at Olympic Trials

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Simone Manuel made history in 2016, but a more unprecedented accolade could be hers this summer at the United States Olympic Trials.

In tying for the gold medal in the Rio Olympics in the 100 freestyle and winning silver in the 50 free, Manuel joined illustrious company. That she did so days after her 20th birthday, as the first Black female swimmer to win gold only heightened the accomplishment.

When people tout the U.S. Olympic Trials as the fastest and deepest in the world, the women’s sprint field offers a pertinent data point. And it underscores what’s at stake for Manuel this week in Omaha: Both she and Abbey Weitzeil are looking to become the first American woman to qualify for the 50 and 100 free in multiple Olympics since the 50 free was added to the women’s program in 1988.

The club of female sprinters to represent the United States in both the 50 free and 100 free at the same Games is already select:

  • Simone Manuel and Abbey Weitzeil, 2016
  • Jessica Hardy, 2012
  • Kara Lynn Joyce, 2004
  • Dara Torres, 2000
  • Angel Martino and Amy Van Dyken, 1996
  • Jenny Thompson, 1992

Of that group, only Manuel and Torres (bronze in the 100 in a tie with Thompson, bronze in the 50) managed to medal in both swims like Manuel did in Rio. Hardy and Joyce didn’t medal in either event in their appearances. (It may be worth a reminder that Manuel was second to Weitzeil in both events in Omaha in 2016).

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Simone Manuel with gold from the 100 free at the 2019 World Championships; Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

For Manuel to go to Tokyo in both events and medal there would elevate her to the stratosphere of American sprinting history, and all before her 25th birthday on Aug. 2.

Manuel has spent the years since Rio reinforcing how special a performance it was. She won the 100 free and took bronze in the 50 at the World Championships in 2017, both in American records. (She’s still the only American under 24 seconds). It was double gold from the 2019 Worlds plus world records in the 400 medley and 400 mixed medley relays and silvers in the 400 and 800 free relays.

The 100 free in Gwanju is an object lesson in Manuel’s toughness. She was the top seed out of prelims, then scraped into finals tied for seventh. That drew her into an outside lane … which mattered not one iota in finals.

“I knew what I was capable of going into the meet, just with how I had practiced the whole year,” Manuel told Swimming World last year. “I had some high and lofty goals for myself. That’s why the meet itself was somewhat disappointing because I knew I was better than what I had showcased. I feel like every time I step on the blocks I have a chance to win. I think it would be a waste of time to step up on the blocks, shooting for second or third or fourth or whatever place besides first. So every time I step up on the blocks, I’m there to win.”

It’s a two-part plan this summer for Manuel. First, Trials, where the field is undergoing a generational flux. Last summer, when we projected to 2021, the 50 free field seemed crowded if undifferentiated. Of the six established challengers beyond Weitzeil, two (Margo Geer and Lia Neal) have retired. The youthful Gretchen Walsh seems like an establishment figure next to fast risers like Claire Curzan (who has been 24.17 at age 16), Torri Huske (24.44 at 18) and University of Virginia sensation Kate Douglass.

The contenders in the 100 freestyle are even more voluminous. There are the sprinters, plus the all-arounders (Mallory Comerford, Kelsi Dahlia, Olivia Smoliga), plus the mid-distance specialists stepping down (Allison Schmitt, Katie McLaughlin). The addition of the 1,500 could dissuade distance types from vying for 400 free relay spots, at least.

The global picture presents more of a challenge, where many of the finalists from 2016 will still be there. With Sarah Sjostrom and the Australian contingent, a spot on the podium will not come easy.

Manuel has proven in the last five years that she is not just one of the best sprinters in the world, not just one of the best swimmers in the world, but so much more. She has her own swimwear collection, is a co-founder of a media company and has engaged in numerous philanthropic partnerships. She is, certainly, unrelenting away from the pool. This summer, she has a chance to reiterate how relentless she is in the water.

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