RIO DE JANEIRO — When Simone Manuel touched the pool wall at the end of her swimming event in Rio, she set an Olympic and an American record — and broke a major barrier.
The U.S. swimmer matched Canadian Penny Oleksiak stroke for stroke, earning the pair a tie and gold in the women’s 100-meter freestyle Thursday night.
Manuel not only gave Team USA its first gold medal in that competition in decades, the win marked various firsts for her as well, namely, she became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event for the U.S.
Manuel set Olympic record
When Manuel and her Canadian counterpart came to the wall at the same instant, they set an Olympic record of 57.20 seconds in that event.
“My first gold medal, at my first Olympics, is kind of a surprise to me,” Manuel said. “I never thought I would be in this position but I’m so blessed and honored to be on the medal stand.”
She set an American record, too
And while she was toppling Olympic records, the 20-year-old set yet another mark.
Manuel became the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event for the United States.
“It means a lot [to be the first black woman to earn gold in the pool],” Manuel said after the race. “This medal is not just for me. It’s for a whole bunch of people that came before me and have been an inspiration to me. And it’s for all the people after me, who believe they can’t do it.”
With the win, she also gave the U.S. its first gold in the women’s 100 free since 1984 — when Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer tied. That race was the second, and only other time, there has been a tie in an Olympic swimming event.
Manuel also has a silver medal to her name. She helped the U.S. women’s team to second in the 4×100-meter freestyle race.
She attends Stanford for a reason
Manuel grew up in Texas but decided to go west for college. She is a rising junior at Stanford University, where she’s part of the swimming team. She said she picked the university for its values.
“You have to work hard and be pretty smart to get into a school like this — but honestly, that’s another reason why I picked it, because I wanted to be in this atmosphere and challenge myself,” she told USA Swimming this year.
“It challenges me academically and athletically, and socially I get to be around such different people, though we also have something in common by being here,” Manuel told USA Swimming about attending Stanford.
And she’s in good company. Her roommate in Rio, Katie Ledecky, is a fellow gold medal winner and an incoming freshman at Stanford.
She started swimming at age 4
USA Swimming described Manuel as a “powerful and gutsy no-limits swimmer.” But her path to get to there did not start Thursday.
Manuel’s parents put her in swimming lessons at age 4 so she would learn how to be safe in water, she said this year. But she enjoyed it so much, she immersed herself fully into her passion by age 9.
During her senior year in high school, she became a household name in the swim community when she broke the national age group record on her 17th birthday.
“Her 50 free swim was the fastest 17- 18-year-old time and the second-fastest American time in history,” USA Swimming said.
Manuel’s passion for the sport extends beyond the pool. She also served on USA Swimming’s diversity and inclusion committee.
Her brothers keep her competitive
As the youngest sibling and the only girl, Manuel has spent her lifetime sharpening her competitive streak.
“I am fortunate that I have two older brothers and they have definitely helped me with being competitive just to keep up with them,” she told USA Swimming this year.
“We were always encouraged to try what we wanted to do. As long as we tried our hardest and did the best we could, it didn’t matter what we did.”
Her brothers chose a different yet just as competitive sport: Basketball.