Convictions and frustrations have been there for years, percolating. Sometimes they went unspoken. Sometimes they were articulated in measured tones. There was no yelling, at least not in public.
In 2020, Simone Manuel is raising her voice.
“I feel in the past, I used my platform,” she told Sports Illustrated. “But not loudly.”
Always proud. Now, loud and proud.
Manuel’s increased volume has coincided with a particularly acute moment in America, and the result is a powerful alchemy. An articulate, 23-year-old gold medalist who will be one of the marquee faces in Tokyo next summer—if there is an Olympics next summer—has a multi-layered message she is shouting out on social media and elsewhere.
About being a Black superstar pushing for diversity and inclusion in the overwhelmingly white sport of swimming. About being Black in America in a year when George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were killed by white cops. About registering to vote, and then voting. About wearing a mask for the good of everyone. About so many things happening here and now.
“These are conversations I’ve had with my parents for years,” Manuel said. “I’ve always had a drive to want to speak out loudly. But I think it’s more accepted to speak your truth now, without people saying, ‘Uh, no-no, that can’t be true, that couldn’t have happened, that can’t be racist.’
“I think people are more accepting hearing about it. People have tried to understand more where I’m coming from.”
More people are ready to have the conversation. And Manuel is more than ready to be a conversation starter.
Really, this began for Manuel before the terrible events of the spring pushed the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront of American discourse. Before the ensuing protests ricocheted around the country. Before there was a pandemic that rocked the world.
It began in January, with a conversation between Simone and her mom, Sharron. At issue: How outspoken is too outspoken? Or not outspoken enough?
In the buildup toward Tokyo 2020, Manuel had become an increasingly attractive pitch woman for major corporations—Toyota, Nike, Coca-Cola, TYR swimsuits and others have signed her up. A Black swimming star with a Stanford degree, a sharp mind, a winning smile, status as the foremost female freestyle sprinter in the world—she was an advertising dream.
But corporate dollars can come with corporate handcuffs, and in the swimming world endorsement money is infamously elusive. Manuel had always advocated for a more diverse swimming community; could she now push the envelope further on other race-related issues without risk to her shiny public image?
“We were just kind of going over what you want to do and where you want to be,” Sharron said. “I just said, ‘Well, Simone, at some point you just have to tell your story.’ All this arose from what was already simmering. Deep down inside, she always knew she was going to have to speak on these issues—not politics, but humanity and equality. She wanted to be authentic and raw with the truth.”
So Sharron’s advice was simple: Say what comes to your heart, Simone. So she has. This is no bland athlete avoiding opinions to go along and get along.
There have been Instagram and Twitter posts that flash anger at persistent racism. There have been soul-searching posts that articulate disappointment and sadness, including a May 28 Instagram treatise that ends thusly:
“The words ‘freedom,’ ‘justice,’ and ‘equality’ are uttered by many, BUT do we really experience it? No! We have yet to experience it collectively as a nation, and we won’t until we all come together and fight for it … until we’re ‘all in this together.’
“If this makes you uncomfortable, check your privilege. Think of those who lack comfort EVERY SINGLE DAY.”
Reaction has been predominantly positive, from rank-and-file fans to corporate backers. In fact, Manuel is one of four Olympic or Paralympic athletes featured in a new Procter & Gamble digital video series, titled The Measure of Greatness, that champions their activism.
Critics? There have been a few. But this is what you sign up for by raising your voice.
“I’ve gotten a lot of [direct messages] of support,” Manuel said. “But also DMs from people saying they don’t care what I think. There are people who want you to shut up and swim.”
“You can’t constantly be worried about who is mad at you,” Sharron Manuel said.
America was overwhelmingly happy with Simone Manuel in 2016 when, as a 19-year-old Olympic rookie, she won four medals—two gold—and became the first Black swimmer to win an individual swimming gold. Her star was just ascending.
A year later at the World Championships in Budapest, Manuel won five gold medals and one silver, then skipped her final season at Stanford to turn pro. Last year in South Korea, Manuel became the first woman swimmer to win seven medals at the World Championships, collecting four gold and three silver.
But like the rest of the American contingent, it was an up-and-down meet for Manuel. The expectation was seven medals, with maybe a couple more of them gold. A disappointing relay performance was followed by a near-disaster in qualifying heats for the 100 freestyle, when she barely snuck into the final in Lane 1.
When Manuel pulled out the win from the outside, her reaction wasn’t the surprised elation of gold in Rio in 2016. It was a head-dropping exhale.
“It was definitely a sigh of relief,” she said. “There was a lot of weight on my shoulders.”
Sharron and Marc Manuel have sensed the weight for a long time on the youngest of their three children. She was very good, very young, but also in a lonely spot—far more advanced than her friends, and of course, a racial anomaly. When she made the USA Swimming National Team at the tender age of 15, the family got Simone a sports psychologist to help her navigate all the was suddenly arising in front of her.
“I knew this kid was going to have to deal with a lot,” Sharron said. “And a lot will be expected.”
Even now, Manuel carries something extra with her to Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center pool deck every day. This is the world’s greatest freestyle training ground, from sprinter Manuel to distance legend Katie Ledecky, and while the two swim almost entirely different events (maybe crossing over at the 200-meter free), they share the weight of greatness. It is, at times, a lonely task for the both of them—but Simone is also the racial outlier.
“Her growth extends well beyond the swimming pool,” said Greg Meehan, her coach at Stanford as both a collegian and now as a professional. “In 2016, she was thrust into a leadership role as a barrier-breaking African American woman. That role came to her whether she was ready or not—she was undoubtedly the new face of diversity in the sport of swimming.
“I’m sure it hasn’t been easy. It seems as every interview and conversation about race is directed to Simone. But she has truly embraced the role and her platform for change. I’m so proud of Simone for making her voice louder — not just in our sport, but in all sports and beyond in the greater community.”
Some days, the person tagged as America’s Greatest Black Swimmer may look around and wish someone else was asked all the race-related questions, but few others look like her.
“The more she’s done, the more pressure she’s felt as being part of this community,” Sharron said. “She doesn’t want to let everyone down. When she shows up, she’s showing up for a community. That’s something she does still occasionally stress about. Sometimes she needs to give herself a break.
“It isn’t always easy being one of very few in a sport. The price can be very high.”
It can be a burden at times. But also an opportunity. And the confluence of events in 2020 has produced a louder, prouder Simone Manuel.
WHO IS SIMONE MANUEL
Simone Ashley Manuel (born August 2, 1996) is an American competition swimmer specializing in sprint freestyle. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, she won two gold and two silver medals: gold in the 100-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter medley, and silver in the 50-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. In winning the 100-meter freestyle, a tie with Penny Oleksiak of Canada, Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic gold in swimming and set an Olympic record and an American record.
Manuel also holds three world records as a member of a relay team, and she is a six-time individual NCAA Division I Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships champion, becoming one of the first three African American women to place in the top three spots in the 100-yard freestyle event in any Division I NCAA Swimming Championship. From 2014 to 2018, she attended Stanford University, where she swam for the Stanford Cardinal and helped Stanford win the NCAA team championship in women’s swimming and diving in 2017 and 2018. She turned pro in July 2018.