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RIO DE JANEIRO – The tears trickled down her cheek immediately after she sang two words: “gave proof.” Whether it was just a neat bit of timing or her recognizing the history she made, it was perfect that Simone Manuel, standing atop an Olympic podium, a gold medal hanging from her neck, the first black American female swimmer to have won one, happened to melt at the precise moment in “The Star-Spangled Banner” that encapsulated her night.
Gave proof. She didn’t just give it to black Americans. Reducing Thursday to that would be wrong. What Manuel did at the Rio Games’ Olympic Aquatics Stadium – storm back from a deficit in the 100-meter freestyle mad dash, set the Olympic record in 52.70 seconds and tie 16-year-old Canadian Penny Oleksiak for the rare two-gold race – was give it to Americans, period.
[Slideshow: Meet Team USA’s Simone Manuel]
The history of black Americans and swimming is a microcosm of the institutional racism that held back the United States for so long and still percolates in society today. The perception that black people can’t swim is ignorant; the reality that black people don’t swim is closer to the truth – USA Swimming estimates 70 percent of black children don’t know how to swim and the CDC says they’re 5½ times likelier to drown than white kids – and it’s a symptom of the errors of our forebears. Errors that someone like Simone Manuel is going a long way to erase.
Understand, this dates back nearly 100 years, to the public-swimming boom of the 1920s and ’30s, when pools shot up across the United States. Segregation kept black Americans from joining. Pools shot up in black communities after integration, but they were often of poor quality and minimal size. Generations of black Americans could have learned to swim just as well as anyone. They were simply denied the proper opportunities to do so.
Manuel wasn’t. She grew up in an upper-middle class suburb of Houston. She danced and swam. When she was 10, she was urged to specialize. She chose swimming. And as she grew into an elite sprinter and matriculated to Stanford and stood on the 100 free podium at the NCAA championships with two other black women and prepared for Rio, she did so with the duality of wanting to win for all those before her who proved black kids can’t just swim but do so at a world-class level while not trying to pigeonhole herself as the girl defined by her race because the mistakes of past generations put her in the position to be the first at something.
“That’s something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot, just coming into this race tonight,” Manuel said. “I kind of tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me just being in this position. I do kind of hope it goes away. I’m super glad with the fact that I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport. But, at the same time, I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone, the black swimmer.’
“The title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I’m not supposed to be able to break records. That’s not true because I work just as hard as anybody else and I love the sport and I want to win just like everybody else.”
When Manuel popped up from the water Thursday and turned around to see the scoreboard, her lower lip trembled. Then she realized what she’d done, and her jaw dropped, literally. Her left hand shot out of the water and covered her mouth. She stormed back from third place at the turn to tie Oleksiak, to beat Australian Cate Campbell, to call herself Olympic champion.
She wept when she exited the pool, lost it when she celebrated with her friends and couldn’t hold back the two tears, one dripping down her left cheek and another her right, as she sang the anthem. Unwittingly, Manuel had shown something far more important than her ability to beat the best swimmers in the world or that a black swimmer could win Olympic gold.
Manuel gave proof that progress is real. That despite the continued marginalization of minorities in some communities, our recognition of past blunders and willingness to remedy them yields positivity for the entire country, not just segments defined by race. America was introduced to its newest gold medalist Thursday night, and that she happened to be of African-American descent only reminded the country that our best and brightest come from everywhere.
Twenty years after Dominique Dawes and Betty Okino were the first black girls to win gold in gymnastics, Gabby Douglas captured all-around gold. And on Thursday, another Simone from Houston was even more remarkable. With one dominant day, Simone Biles made a compelling argument that she’s the greatest gymnast of all time. Less than a quarter century after one kind of history was made, so was another.
More than any Olympian in Rio, Simone Biles inspires girls – black, white, Latino, Asian, everyone. The love for her is overwhelming and understandable and universal. Perhaps Simone Manuel’s win will help bring a kid – black, white, Latino, Asian, anyone – into the sport who transcends like Biles.
“I hope that I can be an inspiration to others,” Manuel said. “So this medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find the love and drive to get to this point.”
There’s already a pipeline of young black swimmers who are taking the overwhelmingly white pools of USA Swimming and making them look more like America. Other communities are nearly as underserved: Nearly 60 percent of Latino children in the U.S. struggle to swim. Same goes for around 40 percent of white children, not an insignificant number by any means.
Swimming stereotypes don’t haunt them like they do the black community, though, which is why Simone Manuel’s name rang out and her deed resonated. The United States is fractured in plenty of ways, screwed up in plenty more, but it is capable of taking steps, baby though in size they may be, to address its wrongs. The tears of Simone Manuel were simply a reminder that no matter how obscene our past, no matter how problematic our present, Americans of all kind are capable of amazing things.
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