Days after her 20th birthday, Simone Manuel made history in the pool at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics when she earned gold in the 100-meter freestyle. The result was both a surprise and an unprecedented triumph. American female swimmers had competed in the Olympics for nearly 100 years when Manuel hit the wall at 52.70 in Rio, but she was the first African American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event. “The gold medal wasn’t just for me,” she said after the race.
Now 24, the 14-time NCAA champion from Sugar Land, Texas — who trained in a stranger’s backyard pool during the pandemic — may be on the cusp of superstardom. Her first step comes this week at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, as the next American team takes shape in Omaha, Nebraska.
Since her four-medal performance in Rio — she also won gold in the 4×100-meter medley and silver in the 50-meter freestyle and the 4×100-meter freestyle relay — Manuel has continued to excel on the global circuit. She won five gold medals at the 2017 World Championships and set a female record in 2019 with seven medals, including a sweep of the 50- and 100-meter freestyles, the latter of which came in 52.04 seconds, an American record.
In long-course meter pools, Manuel holds the top three American times in the 100-meter freestyle and the top two times in the 50-meter freestyle. But even that is selling her dominance short.
Manuel owns four of the top 50 times ever recorded in the 100-meter freestyle, according to FINA, and she has dominated Americans in both the 100-meter and 50-meter versions of the race: She posted the top American time in the 50 free every year from 2013 to 2020, and in the 100 free, Manuel has set the top American time six times from 2013 to 2021, finishing no worse than third.
As was the case in 2012 and 2016, Manuel will be attempting to qualify at the swim trials this week in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles. She figures to be the first American woman to qualify in both the 50 and the 100 in multiple Olympics since the former was added as an event in 1988.
For some, trials are considered the most difficult and most pressure-packed race on the calendar. “Many people say it’s harder than the actual Olympics,” Manuel said. And while that may be true, given the depth and talent of American swimming at the moment, Manuel will have her work cut out for her in Tokyo, too.
Sweden’s Sarah Sjöström is only a few months removed from an elbow fracture, which will likely render her unable to defend her gold medal in butterfly. But the current world record holder in the 50- and 100-meter freestyles will almost certainly take the starting blocks next to Manuel in the final of those events as her stiffest non-American competition.
Much has changed for Manuel since her breakout in Rio. She’s a Stanford graduate, she has a signature swimwear collection with TYR Sport, and she’s a co-founder of Togethxr, a media and commerce company focused on female athletes. She’s now the favorite entering Tokyo, with a real possibility that she could glide into the record books: as the first woman to win five gold medals at the same games, the second woman to win six medals in one Olympics or the second woman ever to repeat as an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle.
But more broadly, Manuel has the chance to become the face of global swimming alongside fellow Americans Ledecky and Caeleb Dressel, with Michael Phelps’s sport-defining career now over. That a Black American could soon rule both the clock and the marketing of professional swimming would be a watershed moment for the predominantly white sport — and Manuel clearly recognizes the opportunity. She has spent much of the past five years championing social justice and representation, even adding an inclusion rider into her contract with TYR Sport.
“I really want to inspire little boys and girls, especially minorities or people who have not always felt welcome, to get in the water,” Manuel said. “I want kids to be able to see themselves in me.”