INDIANAPOLIS — Simone Manuel doesn’t like to lose.
Which made her win in the 50-meter freestyle at 2017 Phillips 66 National Championships so much sweeter. The meet is part of the Team USA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast.
The 20-year-old Olympic gold medalist put Tuesday’s tough 100-meter freestyle behind her. In that race, she finished second to up-and-comer Mallory Comerford.
But Manuel would not let anyone by her in the 50 free, a race known as the splash and dash — a one-length-of-the-pool sprint that’s so fast the swimmers don’t take a breath. Her time of 24.27 was 0.2 of a second shy of Darra Torres’s American record, set in 2008.
Abbey Weitzeil finished second in 24.74.
“I was happy with that swim,” said Manuel. “I was pretty surprised with a 24.2 based on how I’ve been feeling in the water. But I think I was most pleased with the fact that mentally I was able to channel my energy into swimming and not so much my nerves.”
After tying for gold in the 100 freestyle at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 last summer, Manuel returned to Stanford for her junior year. She had red-shirted for the Cardinal swim team during her sophomore year as she prepared for the 2016 Olympics, and she easily transitioned back to school and the college team for 2016-2017. In the pool, she seemed to lose little of her Rio fitness and focus.
At 2017 NCAA Championships in March, she won the 50-yard freestyle, then won the 100 free in 45.56, becoming the first female swimmer to go under 46 seconds in that event. She also swam in several relays and helped Stanford win its first NCAA title since 1998.
This spring, she competed at the Atlanta and Santa Clara Pro Swim Series meets, winning every race she entered. Coming to nationals, she was a favorite to win both the 50 and 100 frees.
But she confessed that the pressure of being a favorite got to her in the 100 freestyle on Tuesday night. And she is now aware that a similar target will be on her back going to world championships as the reigning Olympic gold medalist in the 100 free, and silver medalist in the 50 free.
“I’m going to figure out how to manage that a little bit better knowing that there are some expectations, and I already put a lot of pressure and expectations on myself,” she said. “Throughout the training camp and when I go home, I’ll try to focus on just doing my best. I think that’s when I perform my best, when I’m calm and just focusing on how I want to swim as opposed to how people want me to perform.”
Weitzeil, 20, who won an Olympic gold medal in Rio as part of the 4x100 medley team and silver on the 4x100 free, also struggled in the 100 free on Tuesday night and didn’t even qualify for the final.
“I’ve had a little bit of a rough meet — a little bit of a rough year, actually,” Weitzeil said. “I was more about having fun at this point and seeing what I could do the last night. 50 free is my favorite event, and I just wanted to see what I can do. Super, super happy that I was able to get my hand to the wall.”
Since Rio, she started her freshman year at the University of California-Berkeley.
Asked why it was rough, she said the transition was hard — going back to school after taking a year off to make the 2016 Olympic team, then getting used to a different coach, and living on her own.
“This year has been a little crazier with college season and everything,” she said. “My goal wasn’t set in stone for this meet. It was different — I have a lot more going on in my life and everything. I guess I’m really proud of myself for being able to come back after such a horrible swim earlier in the meet and such a rough year. Just being able to do something that I made myself proud of.”
And now Weitzeil has one more item to her crazy year: a trip to her second world championship.
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered four Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.