By Peggy Shinn | June 05, 2019, 6:20 p.m. (ET)

Simone Manuel looks on before competing at the TYR Pro Swim Series on May 17, 2019 in Bloomington, Ind.

 

Simone Manuel finished her last college assignment at Stanford University on March 23, 2019. And then the 22-year-old swimmer jumped headfirst into a cause.

The first African American woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming, she wants to show the world that the sport of swimming is open to all. Everyone should learn to swim – for the sake of their safety.

“Sixty-four percent of African American children, 45 percent of Hispanic and Latino children, and 40 percent of Caucasian children have little to no swimming ability,” she recited off the top of her head. “It’s the second-leading cause of death for children under the age of 13.”

Manuel, who turned pro last July, forgoing her final season of collegiate eligibility, was in New York last month to kick off USA Swimming Foundation’s Make A Splash tour and #GogglesOn campaign. In her role as a USA Swimming Foundation ambassador, she would like to have an impact on these statistics.

“Just knowing that if me swimming 52 seconds or me going out there and being an example to people that they can do it and hopefully save their life is so rewarding,” she said earlier this month on the podcast “Laughter Permitted.”

To put this in context, 52 seconds is the time it takes Manuel to swim the 100-meter freestyle. She tied for first in the 100 free at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 in 52.70. 

In partnership with the USA Swimming Foundation and Akron Area YMCA in Ohio, Manuel will help provide swim lessons to students at the I PROMISE School during a week-long camp this month.

The I PROMISE School was started by LeBron James last year for at-risk children in Akron — James’ hometown. The school opened with 240 students in third and fourth grades.

“Children in inner city communities do not have access to pools or have a chance to have swim lessons,” said Manuel by phone from New York. “Bringing swim lessons into those communities really helps reduce the drowning rate. It’s something that’s super important to me, and I’m really excited about that partnership.”

[To find swim lessons in your area, go to www.usaswimmingfoundation.org and click on “Find Swim Lessons.”]

As a pro swimmer, Manuel is also determined to show that swimming is a diverse and inclusive sport — more diverse and inclusive than when she was coming up through the ranks. She has a rider built into her contract with swimsuit manufacturer TYR to insure that diversity is reflected in her sponsorship obligations.

For example, if she attends events, she includes a diverse group of people in the space. Or if she is doing a photo shoot, she asks for a black beautician — “because often times in the beauty industry, black cosmetologists or beauticians aren’t hired,” she explained.

“It’s creating a space where [everyone] feels welcome, and that space is swimming,” she added. “It allows people to feel like they belong in that space, especially when that space is not always created for them.”

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It also allows her to serve as a role model for younger African American athletes. “Can’t see it, can’t be it” is a saying she has incorporated into her role as a pro swimmer.

So why did Manuel turn pro before her NCAA swimming eligibility expired? 

In three seasons swimming for Stanford, Manuel won six individual NCAA titles in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles and helped the Cardinal win eight relays and back-to-back NCAA team titles in 2017 and 2018. (She red-shirted her sophomore year to prepare for the Rio Games).

After long talks with her coach and her parents, Manuel decided to turn pro in July 2018 to give herself two full years to adjust to swimming as a full-time job before the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. 

"We felt going pro last year was the best to allow me to have time to get used to traveling, get used to a professional schedule and all the things that come with being a professional athlete,” she said. “It allows me to learn through the process and have some growing pains as well. Then I can just have tunnel vision toward 2020.”

It was tough juggling two quarters of classes with her professional obligations. Sometimes, she was called to events or meetings with just a few days’ notice — not really enough time to let her professors know she had to skip class.

“It definitely is quite different than just being an NCAA athlete,” Manuel realized.

Now, as a college graduate (she walked with her class in Stanford’s graduation last June with a degree in communications and a minor in African and African American studies), Manuel is focused on training in the Stanford pool with fellow pro Katie Ledecky. 

This partnership may help Manuel expand her freestyle repertoire beyond the 50- and 100-meter races. In addition to her Olympic gold medal in the 100 free, she won a silver in the 50 free in Rio. 

At the TYR Pro Swim Series meet in Bloomington, Indiana, earlier this month, Manuel finished second to Ledecky in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky is the reigning Olympic champion in the 200

Manuel plans on swimming the 50 and 100 freestyle races at the 2019 world championships this summer. But she would not say if she is officially adding the 200 — only that she trains that distance because it helps her 100 free.

“I still don’t know what I’m doing with the 200 freestyle because it’s a tough event, especially since I’m swimming the 100 free and there are so many relays revolved around the 100 free,” she said. “We’ll see. It’s definitely an event that’s a focus for me.”

At the Rio 2016 Games, Manuel competed in the 4x100 freestyle and medley relays, winning silver and gold medals, respectively. World championships add mixed gender relays to the schedule. In 2017, Manuel competed in four world championship relays and will likely compete in that many again in 2019.

Manuel and the U.S. team hope to finish atop the leader board at the 2019 world championships after a series of sub-par performances at the 2018 Pan Pacific Championships last summer. Manuel came away from that meet with four silvers, one bronze and no gold medals. 

“I definitely have some pretty lofty goals [for world championships],” Manuel admitted, but then softened her outlook. 

“For me, it’s just continuing to improve. I just want to do the best that I can and see where that lands and then after worlds really refocus and see where I can get better and hopefully do those things in preparation for the Olympic trials in 2020.”

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.