Why Gold Medalist Manuel Will Not Be Called “Simone the Black Swimmer”

Photo Courtesy: Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

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By Annie Grevers, Swimming World Staff Writer

Simone Manuel doesn’t want to be known as “Simone the black swimmer”. Not because she is the least bit ashamed of her African American heritage; she just doesn’t want her skin color to be such a novel trait in her beloved sport of swimming.

“The title of ‘black swimmer’ suggests that I am not supposed to win golds or break records,” Manuel said. “But that’s not true because I train hard and want to win just like everyone else.”

Right now in the world, the name Simone Manuel is very firmly cemented to the phrase “first female African American swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal”.

In one of the most shocking races of the Rio Games thus far, 20-year-old Manuel and 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak of Canada charged past world record-holder Cate Campbell to tie for the win in the 100 meter freestyle. Their time of 52.70 set a new Olympic record.

You could almost hear the collective gasp of spectators around the globe, watching two first-time Olympians eat up the most dominant freestyler in the world in the final 10 meters. I covered my mouth, mirroring the stunned reaction of the two gold medalists. The camera panned from Manuel to Oleksiak; the commentators were confused for a moment. “It’s a dead heat!!” one Aussie commentator suddenly exclaimed on the live stream.

In less than 53 seconds, Manuel kicked through a barrier she did not necessarily think about before her race. She maybe didn’t even ponder the significance of what she had done as she pulled herself out of the pool. But she had known she had a mighty purpose in the swimming world from a young age.

The Manuel household in Sugar Land, Texas was one that insisted each child take swim lessons. Sharron Manuel, Simone’s mom, said that in the Houston area, there’s no tolerating the sweltering summers without taking plunges in the pool. She wanted to make sure all of her kids could safely cool off.

Two boys came before Simone. The brothers have been a source of inspiration for their confident, hard working younger sister. Both of the boys started out on a neighborhood swim team, but eventually moved on to run up and down a basketball court instead of swimming laps in the pool. The Manuel boys both played college basketball, following in their father, Marc’s, footsteps.

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Photo Courtesy: Sharon Manuel

Simone stuck with the vat of chlorinated water. “She always had a natural affinity for the water,” Sharron said.

The lack of diversity in the sport of swimming was noticed, but not emphasized in the Manuel home. It wasn’t until Simone was 11 years old that she started to notice the rarity of African Americans in the sport she’d chosen.

“She came to me one day and asked me why she didn’t see many others like herself in the sport of swimming,” Sharron recalls. “I didn’t have an answer for her immediately so I said, ‘That’s a good question. I don’t know– let’s look it up.’”

Sharron researched the sport and took note of the few African Americans who were involved in swimming. “For her, that was the moment when she realized she had a bigger role to play in what she was doing with the sport of swimming,” Sharron said.

There were times when the environment on the pool deck was “uncomfortable” territory for the Manuel family because of their race. Sharron made certain her daughter knew whose opinions mattered early on.

“We have always encouraged Simone and talked to her about doing what she’s doing because she loves it, not putting other people’s expectations on herself. If they have a problem with her, then that’s their problem, don’t make it hers,” Sharron said. 

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Photo Courtesy: 2016 NBCUNIVERSAL MEDIA, LLC

As Simone progressed in the sport, her obligation to make a mark for herself, her family, her faith, and her heritage took hold. Sharron and Marc have always kept an open dialogue with their kids, frequently reminding them their identities are rooted in far more than their sport and their race.

“We’ve always told her that her value is in who she is as a person, not just because her skin color,” Sharron said. “Her skin color is the way it is because that’s the way God made her. But it is her responsibility to do what she can with the gifts he has given her.”

Manuel took to Twitter shortly after winning her surprise Olympic gold and cited the very responsibility her mom spoke of: “It is an honor to represent the USA! God is working in me! I am so blessed and grateful. Thank you all so much for your support.”

After her historic performance, Manuel seemed to be speaking directly to young African American kids who may have never contemplated diving into the sport of swimming:

“I definitely think it raises some awareness and will get them inspired. I mean, the gold medal wasn’t just for me. It was for people that came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport. For people who believe that they can’t do it, I hope I’m an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. You might be pretty good at it.”

Maritza Correia and Cullen Jones were two athletes who made Simone believe she might be “pretty good” at swimming. Correia was the first black woman to make an American Olympic team. She and her relay mates won silver at the 2004 Athens Games. Jones has a total of four Olympic medals from the 2008 and 2012 Games.

One of Manuel’s best friends is fellow Olympian and Stanford Cardinal teammate Lia Neal, who is of African American and Chinese descent. Neal has collected a bronze and silver from relays at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games. Neal and Manuel made history by becoming the first African American duo to make the same U.S. Olympic swim team.

Being the black swimmer to break this barrier wasn’t on Manuel’s radar. It actually felt like an added responsibility for the 20-year-old who longed for the focus to be on her swimming race, not her skin color.

“It is something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot,” Manuel said. “Coming into the race, I tried to take weight of the black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not ‘Simone the black swimmer.’”

For now, Simone is carrying the label “Simone the black swimmer” with dignity, knowing that her influence in this Games could just be the pebble dropping into the pool. The ripple effect of her name noted with her race will undoubtedly catch the attention of a new audience; a minority audience that may now feel the pool is a welcoming place. That the sport of swimming is a far cry from the days of segregation, when neighborhood pools were only open to whites.

“When she was about 15 we started talking about how swimming wasn’t going to be just about her,” Sharron said. “There would be a point in her life when the swimming would be more than just for her, she would share that gift with the world and it would carry a message.” 

Message sent and received. Not with Simone Manuel standing on a soap box, but with Simone Manuel exercising her God-given gift in the pool. Black girls can swim. And they can swim lightning fast. So why not dive in? Simone and the sport of swimming are eager for the day when African Americans are no longer a tiny slice of the swimming population. I hope the same number of little girls donning leotards acting out a perfectly executed Simone Biles floor routine is matched by girls donning swim suits and the fierce pre-race face of Simone Manuel.

21 Comments

21 comments

  1. avatar

    Great story…as a master’s swimmer I am the only black but I am very healthy . …so proud of her and historically know African are great swimmers

  2. avatar
    Chad Cannon

    As it should be.

  3. avatar
    BlackSwimCoach

    I mean I get what she is saying and I get where you are coming from but that reality for a lot of black kids swimming at pools is a lot different. She may not want to be know as “black” swimmer but you are naive if you think that’s not the way the world will view her. For many kids on club teams they are the black swimmer and will continue to be that way. That’s a culutural issue.

    In your article you touch lightly on the history that Simone and her mom looked up yet you don’t delve in to what that history actually is which is really important She just didn’t take note of the few African Americans in the sport, she had to take a look at Americas ugly past of flat our rejection of blacks in the pool. Instances where a hotel owner poured bleach in the pool as black were swimming. As recently as 2009 a camp of minority kids had thei contract canceled because member of the pool felt like the “complextion” of the pool would change. If you think that incident is a rarity you really should look at how today pools are segregated via proxy of neighborhood, clubs, and schools.

    Golf had Tiger woods and people thought that would usher in a new age of diversity but it didn’t. In fact numbers dropped because the culture of golf didn’t want it. Why? I don’t have an easy answer but you have to be willing to look at the history that often make people uncomfortable. It is only then, that you can begin to understand. We do the same thing when we talk about doping right. We look at the history. Obviously that’s a lot easier when we are standing on the “good” side but you have to look to understand and only then can you move forward.

    So in all Ms. Grevers, as a black swim coach, I don’t even see this moment as bringing my numbers up in diversity on my team because at the end of the day these kids and their parents will always be viewed as black. No amount of wishful thinking will erase that. That’s not to take away anything from Simone has accomplished and how big this moment is but for real change to happen ASCA has to want to bring in more diversity, the LSCs have to want to bring in more diversity, USA Swimming at the administrative top(not just with swimming lessons) has to want to bring in more diversity. All of that has to happen and not with some campaign with a catchy phrase, just the genuine effort to want to expand the base. Then things can be as “they should be”

    • avatar
      Bill

      There is a book about history of segregated pools..u r quite correct…and more middle class people can expose their kids because of the time commitment…therected is certainly an economic issue associated with swimming…keeping public pools open and staffed in segregated communities…appreciate your invite coach…

      • avatar
        Chuck Kroll

        ‘Contested Waters’ by Jeff Wiltse 2007 excellent read by anyone interested in the history of segregation via the swimming pools of our nation. Highly recommend!

    • avatar
      Harlem2LA

      @BlackSwimCoach, Simone Manuel didn’t drop out of the sky, she went through the system you complain about and reached the top.

      Nobody needs a history lesson on segregation, it’s the usual distraction from holding accountable urban politicians to provide community services, rather than sitting in office for decades enriching themselves and families.

      doing nothing other than enriching themselves and family members….Try to bring up subject of starting a fund for community pool or tennis courts and

      • avatar
        BlackSwimCoach

        @Harlem2LA Actually if you read what I wrote I never “complained” about a system. I simply pointed out facts about the history of swimming as it relates to the black community.

        Its funny that you talk about history. Because when it comes to doping we like to point to history, like the in the movie the Last Gold. The fact that you see it as a distraction from “urban” politicians who sit in office for decades enriching themselves tells me everything I need to know about how you view the world.

        Quite frankly your ignorance is the real issue. Obviously this topic requires nuance that you are clearly incapable of understanding.

    • avatar
      Cynthia mae Curran

      Tiger Woods is half-asian and in the US its common now to find Asian golfers in High School. In fact, US swimming has had some latinos like Pablo Morales and Jessie V. and some people that are Eur-Asian Natalie Couglin, the Kirk sisters, Nathan Adrian and so forth.

  4. avatar
    Tari Heppe

    Stellar writing, Annie! When a white woman writes about the experience of a black girl growing up in the swim world there will probably always be a pushback of some kind. However, we are aware that your coach and friend throughout your career was not white. And I do not ever remember anything being said about that. He was your guru!! Actions will speak louder than words. Always. So keep taking on the tough things in your sport and keep speaking gentleness and kindness from your perspective and from the perspective of superb athletes like Simone Manuel. She is an Olympic gold medal winner, a star, and a trail blazer: a true inspiration to all Americans. And she is Black. We celebrate her head and shoulders stand above other swimmers for her performance, keeping in mind her heritage and what it means to other little girls who share her heritage and race. Her family and her faith is her rock. That’s the rest of the story! Simone Manuel is one of the most exciting stories of this Olympics!

  5. avatar
    Hagar

    I’m still waiting for people to be judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. We have not come far if the first words after her name are “the first African-American…” Simone’s phenomenal achievement should surely transcend race.

    • avatar
      BlackSwimCoach

      Have you ever wondered why you are still waiting? Being judged by the content of our character is a novel concept, but has proven much harder to execute in real life. The thing is people are judged every day for the color of their skin, religion, and gender. It’s human nature actually. What we can do is recognize these differences and work towards having honest conversations about how our biases may have an affect on one another. Wishful thinking and sentiments will not do.

      I’m not sure what you mean by transcend race because by that very notion you have acknowledged that she is black. If Simone Manuel transcends race then so does everybody else. The very case that you have to say that she transcends race means that you can’t appreciate a huge part of her which is her blackness. Color especially culturally, is part of who we are and most blacks are actually proud of it, so to ignore it can be seen and taken as disrespectful. I see and recognize color, gender, religion all the time and it does not interfere with my ability to treat people with respect or pay homage to a part of who they are. Simple as that.

  6. avatar
    Bill

    The only ‘race’ we should focus on is the one in the water. Who cares what color any of these athletes are? Simone is an American Olympic gold medalist. End of story.

    • avatar
      BlackSwimCoach

      In a perfect world sure, but not the one most of us live in. So I’m not sure what story you’re talking about but in the one I live in, her race matters. You not getting that is a huge part of the problem and thats after the fact that I accept your view point. As a swim coach who happens to be black and former swimmer who happens to black, I care.

      • avatar
        Bill

        I have,a dream that one day….more gold medalist will be as diverse as,we are…perfect world coming…Trump that!!!..I took lesson from Don scholander when I was a young boy in new,Haven 5x Tokyo Olympian…didn’t know what I had then…glad we all are happy for simone…love this opportunity to share with us all…open water race Miami august 28…training harder now..

  7. avatar
    fred242

    Great article. I grew up in the 70’s. I’m from a small a coastal town in New Jersey. The racial lines of segregation were clear drawn in the sand when it came to who had access to the beaches and pools. All the neighboring beaches were in white communities, blacks lived mostly inland where property values and rent were cheaper. If you wanted to go into the white neighborhoods and you needed a “beach pass”. This was the law for all beaches except in Atlantic City, which was the huge resort town. If you didn’t have a beach pass you had to prove you were in fact a resident with your drivers license or with some form of ID. if you couldn’t prove you were a resident out you go. Beach passes were sold to none residents at the local city hall during business hours. On the weekends Lifeguards and beach police would patrol the beaches looking for anyone that without a proper pass pinned to their shorts. If you were white they seldom checked at all. If you were black they zeroed in on you fast. If you had a pass, they wanted to make sure it was current and where did you get it. This little law kept many blacks like myself from even bothering going to the beach. It was beach Apartheid made to keep us out. It made it going to the shore too much of a hassle. This little law for the most part kept the beaches nice and lily white.

    There weren’t many pools in my neighborhood. I learned how to swim by making myself go to the local YMCA in Atlantic City. A 45min bus ride from my house. Growing up my parents never took me or my sister to the beach. It wasn’t even an considered activity for us. Many Blacks felt more comfortable at the lake, away from the constant stares of white people. White people in my town had this attitude that the beaches were theirs and we were on their turf. There were a few lakes around but they were far away and deep in the woods. Some of my friends made the trek. I never bothered because the mosquitoes were always brutal and the snapping turtles liked toes. Years later when I moved to the west coast it was the first time I could literally walk along the beach with without someone asking me for a pass. Sometimes you have to just get away from your small town.

  8. avatar
    Penelope

    Is it that bad to be associated as the African American swimmer who won a gold medal. I’m sure President Obama didn’t mind being called the first African American President..

  9. avatar
    Leander

    Is there some reasons that she is not just an American swimmer? We didn’t analyze the ethnic heritage of Michael Phelps even though it wasn’t so long ago that whether you were German or English or Scottish or French or Irish was a good enough reason to kill one another.

    It is really long past time to stop judging people by the color of their skin and to start judging them by the content of their character. Unless, of course, your goal is to turn America into the Balkans.

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  11. avatar
    Guocheng

    Simone Manuel the first female black gold Olympic swimmer is an inspiration for all the minority color skin in this white dominant sport but then it surely does not need a color gold medalist to prove that color skin can swim too. The question I ponder more about is if it is acceptable to say that certain race does in general have the natural genetic advantage more adaptable for swimming, and if the answer is yes, that would certainly make Simone Manuel’s success even more phenomenon and her black skin definitely worths a mention.

    I think the fact that there are far less outstanding black swimmers is shaped by both nature and nurture yet it seems discussion over nature is such a political taboo yet blame on nurture (such as segregation and economic affluence) is so rightful.

    Each living individual is shaped by both nature and nurture; that said, it should be borne in mind that even nurture itself is a product of nature, i.e. Nature is bigger than nurture, or to put it in more of a philosophical scope, man and civilization must depend on nature but nature never needs man and civilization.

    Nature is the God who creates man. Nature sets the potential limit and nurture decides to what extent the potential could be realized. For a top level player in any field, nature is likely to matter much more than nurture. A child born with average intelligence is most unlikely to ever become a rocket scientist.

    If survival of the fittest is true, thousands of years’ exposure to different environments should result in different potential limits. The genome shaped by the hot tropical climate over thousands of years and that shaped by the cold arctic weather must have resulted in different sets of strength fit for the respective enviroment. To say the black is shaped by nature to be a poorer swimmer than the white due to less buoyancy is merely stating a plain fact; it is nothing to do with eugenics, unless one considers a 100m swimming champion to be of better value than a 100m running champion. Black athletes’ dominance in the running tracks reflects the black’s genetic advantage: that is also a plain fact.

    Discrimination against darker skin is an ugly fact which should be condemned but such political awareness should not cloud the judgement over plain facts about racial differences. Black and white are just different colors, each with their own strengths with respect to the background.

    Racial difference is a matter of facts, ranging from the superficial skin color to the less obvious physical and mental abilities. If we can accept racial differences in skin colors, why is it so difficult to accept racial differences in other aspects? There is no superior race. Nature is fair in shaping us by following nature’s law. In physics, the law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant—it is said to be conserved over time. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, gain in one aspect always comes at the price of loss in another. Accepting racial differences is the first step to cultivate a sense of respect and inclusion for differences shaped by nature. Respecting differences helps nurture tolerance and diversity. Diversity safeguards the vibrancy and flexibility in coping with the ever-changing environment.

    Taoism is the founding philosophy in shaping the Chinese culture. One key concept in Taoism is the trade off between the two opposite forces,e.g. ‘yin阴’ and ‘yang阳’. When the two forces balance each other, there comes harmony. It’s such realization that the Chinese ancient philosopher Confucius advocated “Zhang yong中庸” (the pursuit of being mediocre) and “you rong nai da有容乃大”(greatness comes from tolerance and inclusion). His teachings has shaped not only the Chinese culture but also the larger Eastern Asia including Japan and Korea over the last 2000 years. Based on my limited exposure, I do have the impression that eastern society is more harmonious than the west.

  12. avatar
    Guocheng

    I came across the following in swimmer daily:

    Of course black people can swim, if they learn to, they just can’t swim as well as white people in general, or as well as Asians for that matter. A quick look at the line-up in any, and all, Olympic swimming finals will confirm that this is so. Compare that to the line-up in any track and field event. Track and field line-ups are predominantly black with a smattering of white people. Swimming is even more predominantly white people with very few black people.

    But why is it so?
    Is it Nature or Nurture?

    The Nurture arguments holds that blacks can’t swim because they come from lower socioeconomic areas and swimming requires expensive purpose built facilities and training. That argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There are a lot of wealthy black people in America and around the world and even in countries that are predominantly black there best swimmers can’t compete at international levels. As to the cost and the facilities, there are many sports that require expensive purpose facilities and professional training if you are to rise to the top and black people excel in many of these. Sports like basket ball, tennis, football, and even running track (they aren’t cheap to build and they require a lot of land), The Williams sisters have dominated world tennis for some time. Sure you can go running on the street but you can go swimming in the local pool, the river, the lake, or in the sea. To play tennis you need access to a tennis court and to be really good you need good coaches. American colleges help athletes to excel in sports they are good at – track field, football, etc and they have fostered many black athletes in these activities; it doesn’t seem likely they would be discriminating against black athletes in swimming.

    That leaves Nature as the only reason left standing.
    Black people are said to have denser bones and muscles than white people making them less buoyant. They also naturally have less body fat, at least the fit ones have less, also making them less buoyant but also meaning they have less insulation in the water which may cause their muscles to chill faster and lose power.
    That’s all the explanation that’s needed, it explains the observed reality . Black people then are worse swimmers than whites for the same reasons they are better at track and field, it’s in their biology.

    Some black people are undoubtedly very good swimmers, better than most whites and most Asians, but their just not as good as the best Whites and Asians. The swimming ability Bell curve is for black people shifted a little to the left but for track and field it’s shifted a little to the right.

    You can’t have everything, everything comes at a cost, when you gain in one area you lose in another, that’s the nature of life, it’s how the universe works. Personally I would rather have darker skin and not have to worry about the sun and be better at running, jumping, climbing, and hitting then to be lighter with more body fat and be a better swimmer in the water. Unless you’re planning on falling overboard from a cruise ship one day track and field potential is of more utility in day to day life.

    • avatar
      Cynthia mae Curran

      Well, I always wonder why Afro-Americans are over represented in Track and Field and Basketball. As for Asians, many of the top Asian swimmers in the US also have a European background like Nathan Adrian, Natalie Coughlin. I’m not certain how that plays out.

Author: Annie Grevers

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Annie (Chandler) Grevers is a staff writer for Swimming World. She swam for the University of Arizona, winning the 100 yard breaststroke at the NCAA DI Championships as a senior in 2010. She was also a member of six NCAA Championship relays during her college career as well as a member of Arizona’s NCAA Championship title in 2008. She represented the United States at the Pan Pacific Games in 2010 and at the Pan American Games in 2011, where she won the 100 breaststroke. She is married to Matt Grevers and resides in Tucson, Arizona.

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