RIO DE JANEIRO — It was a good day for women named Simone at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
A few hours after Simone Biles won an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics, Simone Manuel dove into the pool and won a gold of her own.
The 20-year-old swimmer from Sugar Land, Texas, tied for first with 16-year-old Canadian sensation Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter freestyle. Both women set a new Olympic record of 52.70 in the 100 free. Sarah Sjostrom from Sweden finished third in 52.99.
Manuel is the first African American female swimmer to win an Olympic medal in an individual event.
In the wake of police brutality that has strained race relations in the U.S. recently, Manuel hopes that her gold medal will bring some “hope and change” to the issues back home.
But she would prefer that people focus on the gold medal rather than her race.
“Coming into this race tonight, I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me, just being in this position,” she said.
Download the Team USA app today for breaking news, 2016 U.S. Olympic Team bios, videos and more.
“I’m super glad with the fact that I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport,” she added. “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. I want to win just like everybody else.”
Simone, the gold medalist, is a fearless swimmer, said her U.S. teammate Missy Franklin. And it showed. Manuel stood on the blocks with reigning world champion Bronte Campbell from Australia on her right; to her left, Bronte’s sister, current world-record holder Cate Campbell.
Manuel was not intimidated. She swam like she owned the pool and touched the wall first, winning her second Olympic medal at the Rio Games. On Sunday night, she helped the U.S. women swim to a silver medal in the 4x100 free.
She credits her two older brothers — who were in the stands in Rio watching her win gold — for instilling in her a fearless, competitive drive. Chris Manuel is five years older than his sister, and Ryan, who graduated from Southern Methodist University last year, is three years older.
Both boys played basketball. Young Simone wanted to keep up with them. But she did not want to play basketball — ironically, because she is 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 in an interview last year.
Their parents made sure that all three kids knew how to swim, and in the pool, Simone found her element. She hates to sweat, and who sweats in a pool?
By the time she was in high school, Manuel was setting national age group records in the 50 and 100-yard freestyles.
After graduating from high school in 2014, Manuel cemented her presence as one of America’s top freestyle sprinters when she beat Franklin in the 100 free at the grand prix at Santa Clara, California (now the Arena Pro Swim Series).
She matriculated at Stanford that fall, and her freshman year, won two NCAA Division I titles (in the 50- and 100-yard freestyles) and set school records in those events. She redshirted last year to prepare for Olympic Trials and the Rio Games.
Manuel’s Olympic medal is the first for a U.S. swimmer in the women’s 100 freestyle since Natalie Coughlin took the bronze at the 2008 Games, and the first win since Carrie Steinseifer and Nancy Hogshead tied for gold in 1984.
Coincidentally, Manuel and Oleksiak’s tie is the third Olympic swimming race in which the gold medal is shared. In addition to the tie in 1984, Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall, Jr., tied for gold in the 50 free at the 2000 Games.
In the 100 free final in Rio, neither Manuel nor Oleksiak knew that they had tied. Both had their heads down, trying to pass the Campbell sisters and trying to get their hands on the wall first.
“I looked up and saw dots on my blocks,” said Manuel. “I didn’t count how many. But I was like, oh, I’m on the medal stand. Then I turned around and saw the 1 by my name, and I was super surprised. After I stared at it for a little while, I realized that I tied with Penny.”
Manuel credited Stanford and U.S. teammate Lia Neal with pushing her the past two years and with keeping her calm by dancing and singing before the 100 final. Neal is a two-time Olympian who helped the 4x100 freestyle team win a bronze at the London Games and a silver on Sunday night in Rio. Neal is also African American.
“Lia and I have this very special relationship, and I wouldn’t be where I am right now without her,” said Manuel. “After the race, I gave her a big hug, and I cried, and I told her thank you for everything you’ve done for me.”
As for her relationship with the other Simone — the gymnast Biles — Manuel flashed her big smile and said with a laugh, “Simone Biles and I are practically the same person!”
“I met her a year ago, we’ve hung out a couple times. I’m very happy for how she’s done. We both bring medals back to Houston, Texas.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.