Simone Manuel (1996- ), an American swimmer, won the gold medal in the women’s 100m freestyle at the 2016 Rio Olympics. That makes her the first Black woman of any nation to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. She also won a silver for the 4x100m freestyle relay.
When she received the gold medal, she cried as they played “The Star-Spangled Banner”, the US national song. The BBC showed it live – while NBC back home was showing a tape of Russian gymnasts! The US east coast did not see it till an hour later, after midnight (and after Twitter pointed it out).
Manuel tied with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak. They swam 100 metres in 52.70 seconds, breaking the Olympic record. They both beat Cate Campbell of Australia, who holds the world record in that event and was leading the race at the halfway mark.
Oleksiak won Canada’s first gold medal at the Rio games. She is also the first person born after January 1st 2000 to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual event.
But Simone Manuel’s win is a bigger deal. Not just as a Black First (we still live in that age), but because of the stereotype that “Black people can’t swim”, segregated swimming in the US and because of the times.
“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.”
On being a Black swimmer:
“It is something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot. Coming into the race, I tried to take [the] 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.’
“The title of black swimmer suggests that I am not supposed to win golds or break records, but that’s not true because I train hard and want to win just like everyone else.”
“Black people can’t swim” has some truth to it: Most White children in the US can swim, most Black and Latino children cannot. The idea that Blacks do not float as well in water, though, has been proved false.
Swimming pools in the US since the 1920s have become one of the most segregated spaces in the country. Just last year in McKinney, Texas, in Manuel’s own home state, a pool party was violently broken up by police going after Black swimmers (pictured below).
“This medal is not just for me, it’s for a whole bunch of people who have came before me and who have been an inspirational for me… Maritza [Correia], Cullen [Jones]. And it’s for all the people after me, who believe they can’t do it … And I just want to be an inspiration to others – that you can do it.”
– Abagond, 2016.
- Whites-only swim clubs