By Monique Jones
The Birmingham Times
Simone Manuel made history Thursday when she secured the gold medal for women’s 100m freestyle, becoming the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event. She also set an Olympic record, clocking in at 52.70 seconds, while tying with Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak. Manuel also became the first American woman to win in the 100m freestyle since 1984, when teammates Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer tied for gold.
Manuel acknowledged her win’s historic context. “This medal is not just for me. It’s for a whole bunch of people who have [come] before me and have been inspirations to me,” she said. “…This is for all the people after me who believe they can’t do it and I just want to be an inspiration to others, that you can do it. ”
She cited Maritza Correia and Cullen Jones as key role models in her swimming career. Correia became the first black woman to break an American record at the 2002 Women’s NCAA Championships. Correia’s other accomplishments include becoming the first black woman to break a world swimming record and the first black woman to earn a spot on an American Olympic swim team in the 2004 Olympics, with whom she won silver in the 400m freestyle relay. Jones broke the American record in the 50m freestyle relay during the 2008 Olympic trials, and later won gold in the 400m freestyle relay in 2008 Olympics. In 2012, he won silver in the 50m freestyle and 400m freestyle relay and gold in the 400m medley relay.
Manuel’s win reflects a changing tide in American swimming, much of which has been affected by past discrimination. “Swimming pools have been a racially sensitive flashpoint in the US for generations,” wrote BBC News. “African-American people were often denied access to pools in the segregation era, and even after its abolition white people found other ways to exclude them. Nor has building pools for black areas been a priority.” According to BBC News, USA Swimming estimates that 70 percent of African Americans can’t swim.
Correia herself has mentioned the strain there is on the few black swimmers there are in the field. “Probably about 1 percent of U.S. swimmers are black, so it gives you an incentive to go out there and show them that we can do it, too,” she said, according to Biography. Despite being proud of her accomplishment, Manuel hopes her win won’t pigeonhole her in the minds of others. “I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not just ‘Simone, the black swimmer,” said Manuel. Manuel’s win, however, provides more proof to aspiring athletes that they, too, can do it.