|Simone Manuel takes part in a training session prior to the Duel In The Pool at Tollcross International Swimming Centre on Dec. 19, 2013 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Simone Manuel just finished her freshman year at Stanford University.
In the classroom, the 18-year-old swimmer is considering a major in communications or science, technology and society. And she plans to return to the classroom this fall for her sophomore year.
In the pool, Manuel — who gained attention after beating Missy Franklin at a swim meet a year ago — continued to leave most of her competitors astern.
Manuel set school records in the 50, 100 and 200-yard freestyle events and an American record in the 100-yard free (short course). To date, she has broken so many National Age Group records (NAGs) that it’s hard to keep track.
“When you get up next to Simone, you know that she is one of the toughest competitors I’ve ever had the pleasure of racing against,” Franklin said recently.
At first glance, Manuel does not appear tough. The bespectacled swimmer with a huge smile looks more likely to light up a room than a pool. And one of her favorite memories from freshman year was making music videos with her dorm mates.
But put Manuel on the blocks and the smile fades. From where does her focus come?
Manuel credits her two older brothers for instilling in her a fearless, competitive drive. Chris Manuel, a graphic designer who will graduate from Dallas Baptist University in December, is five years older than his sister, and Ryan, who graduated from Southern Methodist University in mid-May, is three years older.
Growing up in Sugar Land, Texas, both boys played basketball. Like many younger siblings, Simone wanted to keep up. But she did not follow them onto the basketball court — ironically, because she was tall.
“I was always the tall one on the team, so I was getting beat up a lot, and I was not a fan of that,” she said by phone from Stanford.
Their parents made sure that all three knew how to swim, and in the pool, Simone found her element. She hates to sweat, and who sweats in a pool?
Although her brothers did not watch her swim meets, they would drive her to morning practice. They are also her rocks — the people whom she calls on a bad day.
Two years ago, Simone challenged Ryan to a race in the pool.
“He only beat me because his technique was so bad that I kept laughing at how funny he looked,” she joked. “Other than that, I know I’m faster.”
Against her peers, she’s been faster for years. In 2011, Manuel made her international debut, finishing fourth at junior worlds. A year later, she made the U.S. junior Pan Pac team, winning gold in the 100-meter free.
By 2013, she was setting NAGs in 50 and 100 freestyle races. At world championships in Barcelona, she won gold in the 4x100-meter freestyle (she swam in the prelims) and finished seventh in the 50 free, swimming 24.80 seconds — a NAG record for 15-16-year-olds.
After graduating from high school last year, Manuel cemented her presence as one of America’s top freestyle sprinters when she beat Franklin in the 100 free at the Arena Grand Prix at Santa Clara (now the Arena Pro Swim Series).
It’s a victory that Manuel plays down.
“At those meets, everyone is at a different stage in their training,” she explained. “As competitors, you’re always going to go back and forth.”
Franklin knows that Manuel is no longer an up-and-comer. She’s arrived.
“She’s fearless,” said Franklin. “She’s going to get up on the block, and she’s going to race, and she’s going to do whatever it takes. She’s not afraid of anything, and I think definitely that’s something that not everyone has. It’s really special, and it’s going to take her a really long way.”
Manuel’s freshman swim season at Stanford culminated at NCAA Championships in March. On day one, between her prelims and finals, she watched Ryan and No. 6 SMU take on No. 11 UCLA in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament. But a midday nap kept her from watching the start of the second half. On the way to the pool for finals, she kept texting her mom to see how the game was going. The UCLA Bruins upset the SMU Mustangs, 60-59.
As if to make up for her brother’s loss, Manuel was triumphant that night, winning the 50-yard free title. She then anchored Stanford to a win in the 400 medley relay. Her time in the freestyle leg, 45.45, trumped Franklin (45.98), who anchored Cal to third place. It also helped Stanford set an American record in the 400 medley relay.
“She’s capable of doing some pretty crazy things when she has an opportunity,” Stanford coach Greg Meehan said after the relay.
On the final day of NCAAs, Manuel also helped Stanford set an American record in the 400 free relay. And she set an individual American record in the 100-yard free (46.09) and led Stanford teammate Lia Neal and Natalie Hinds (Florida) in the first African-American podium sweep at NCAA swimming championships.
Manuel hopes the sweep will bring more diversity to competitive swimming and inspire young swimmers to go for their dreams. But mostly, she hopes the performance makes 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.”
This summer, Manuel will compete at Santa Clara and the LA Invite. From there, she travels to Croatia in July for the Team USA camp leading up to the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia. There, Manuel will swim the 50- and 100-meter free, and no doubt a relay or two.
Although the U.S. women are the defending world champions in the 4x100 free, they have not won Olympic gold in the race since the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games.
“(Simone) has such an incredibly bright future,” said Franklin. “Looking at the possibility of maybe being on a relay with her, that’s something that I’m so excited about.”
But for now, Manuel isn’t saying much about the Olympics. Although she has had her eye on the Games — watching Michael Phelps win his eight gold medals in Beijing in 2008 and then ordering a DVD of his performances — she does not recall envisioning herself as an Olympian.
“I don’t think I ever really realized that the Olympics could be in my future,” she said, before adding sweetly, “I guess it’s in my future now.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.