Updated: September 17, 2016


 By-Art George- Special to BASN

With the accomplishments of Simone Biles in the Rio Olympics (four gold medals, the most ever by an American in gymnastics and as many as any gymnast ever, plus a bronze; and consideration as the best gymnast ever), one must also remember the accomplishment of the other Simone, Simone Manuel, in swimming.  The ripple effect of Simone Manuel’s victories shows not only African Americans success in swimming, but the importance of learning how to swim, not merely for competition but for survival around water.

Simone Manuel and Flag

With a gold medal in the 100 meter freestyle, Simone Manuel became the first African-American and first Black woman to win an individual swimming medal in the Olympics, setting new Olympic and American records.  In another event, with Stanford teammate Lia Neal it was the first time two Black swimmers on the American Olympic swim team competed at the same time, winning silver as part of the 4×100 freestyle relay. This year had also been the first time that two Black females were on the U.S. team.  However, Manuel’s prominence called attention to the rarity of African Americans on swimming podiums.  It renewed a consideration as to why.


Updated Make a Splash Logo

There have been other medalists, and other Blacks swimming collegiately, but almost 70 per cent of African American children have low or no swim ability, according to a 2010 study conducted by the University of Memphis. Low ability is merely standing and splashing in shallow water, nothing more. No ability is just that:

The result is that Black children ages 5 to 19 die from drowning at a rate ­up to 5 1/2 times higher than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because they have not learned how to swim  Sixty percent of Hispanic children and even 40 per cent of Caucasian children have the same lack.

Miriam Lynch of Diversity in Aquatics, a nonprofit organization in Florida focused on curbing high numbers of drowning deaths among African-Americans, said Manuel’s victory could help reverse what she called a cultural fear of swimming. The phenomenon has been traced to slavery; to Jim Crow laws, which segregated swimming pools; the closing of municipal pools; and the economics and privatizing of swim clubs. Black columnist Jim Brewer of The Washington Post commented on the tragedy that swimming, a life skill, has been treated as something that was not for Black people.


According to Professor Carol Irwin who conducted the Memphis study for USA Swimming, many Black parents themselves did not know how to swim, and thus could not teach their children. Ironically, fear of their children drowning or becoming injured prevents many Black parents from having their children learn to swim. The parents’ very fear of their children drowning, she said, made that fate more likely.


Manuel’s victories thus have called renewed attention to the need for Black children to learn to swim. Before there can be Black swim champions, there must be Black swimmers. Diversity in Aquatics; the YMCA’s “Safety Around Water;” the “Make a Splash” program sponsored by USA Swimming, the national governing body for competitive swimming, and such other organizations as the Buffalo City Swim Racers in Buffalo, New York, as reported by WUFO-1080 and ESPN’s The Undefeated, are among those to teach Black youth how to swim.  Make a Splash has taught more than four million youths to swim though $3.7 million in funding.

Medalist Simone Manuel
Swimming the anchor leg in the 4×100 medley relay, Manuel helped Team USA take gold in the event, the 1,000th gold medal to have been won by the United States in the history of the Summer Olympics. Manuel added to her take with a silver medal in the 50M free, just two one hundredths of a second behind the gold medal winner. Twenty years old, Simone Manuel is just now blossoming as a champion.


As Simone progressed in the sport, her obligation to make a mark for herself, her family, her Christian faith, and her heritage took hold. At around age 15, her family became aware that she might become one of the sport’s greats. “When she was about 15 we started talking about how swimming wasn’t going to be just about her,” her mother Sharron told Swimming World magazine.  “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.”


Four years ago she swam at the 2012 Olympic trials and placed only 20th in the 50-meter freestyle, the event in which she would win silver in 2016; and 17th in the 100-meter freestyle in which she took gold at Rio. However, in 2013, she emerged as a junior swimmer to be the first American to break the 25-second barrier in the 50-meter freestyle. Later, at the 2013 U.S. National Championships, she finished third in the 100-meter freestyle and second in the 50-meter freestyle.


Entering Stanford as a freshman in 2014, she broke school records in the 50-, 100-, and 200-yard freestyle, and broke the American and NCAA records for the 100-yard freestyle, and the Pac-12 record for the 100 free.  At age 20, her collegiate career still has another three years of eligibility left; she took 2015-2016 off from collegiate competition as a redshirt year off to focus on training.


Swim observers speculate she may become the poster girl of swimming, certainly for African Americans.  In March 2015, the spring of her freshman year, Manuel, Lia Neal, and Florida swimmer Natalie Hinds came in 1-2-3 in the 100 yard freestyle at the Women’s Division 1 NCAA swimming championship. It was the first time three African-American swimmers took the top finishes in a single NCAA Championship swimming event.  Manuel’s winning time set NCAA, American, U.S. Open, NCAA Championship, and pool records.


She also finished first in the 50-yard freestyle, and second in the 200-yard freestyle, swimming at both sprint and middle distances; and anchored Stanford’s win in the 400 medley relay which set American and NCAA records. On the final day of NCAA’s, Manuel also helped Stanford set American and NCAA records in the 400 free relay, knocking a full second off the previous mark.

Neal Manuel Hinds Podium NCAA (2)

The feat of three Black women atop the victory podiums was noted by African-American swimming star Cullen Jones, an Olympic gold medalist in 2008 and 2012, who believes this precedent-setting occasion continued to dispel myths and misconceptions about African-Americans and other minorities in the sport just as his results had.

“In a culture that still believes that swimming is something ‘We don’t do,’ this shows the perseverance and dedication that these ladies have put forth to all be on the podium,” Jones said. “My hope is that this starts to change our culture’s perception and is only the beginning.”
Manuel’s comments after the win showed her awareness of swimming mortality. She said she hoped that the sweep made people realize that “swimming is a sport that needs to be learned by everyone, even if they aren’t competing, because it’s a life-saving sport.” She told Huffington Post that the most important issue for her is that all minorities need to be water-safe and not afraid of the water.


Cullen Jones himself almost drowned at age five, when he capsized in a floating inner tube and could not swim. He could have been one of those fatal statistics. That event caused his parents to find swimming lessons for him, but he says it took him three years to become comfortable in the water. Since his Olympic wins, he has become an ambassador for the Make a Splash program, teaching fundamentals to urban youth.


He says that although he is accustomed to swimming miles and miles in training yardage,  to see kids put their faces in the water for the first time, blow bubbles for the first time, such little triumphs fuel his own devotion to the sport.  He emphasized that if they have difficulty in some portion, that is okay: they are there to learn.  Fear can be overcome; swimming can be comprehended and enjoyed.


“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,” Simone Manuel said after her first gold medal Olympic win. “You might be pretty good at it.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *