RIO DE JANEIRO — The pursuit of an Olympic medal can be singular and isolating, and the steps it takes to swim two lengths of the pool as fast as possible are filled with details. The athletes assembled here at Olympic Aquatics Stadium are forgiven, then, for some level of self-absorption. They couldn’t have arrived at this spot without it.
But when Simone Manuel touched the wall at the end of the women’s 100-meter freestyle at the Rio Olympics, when she blinked out the chlorine and could see the clock, she knew. This was a gold medal for her, of course, but she shared it. Those in the arena knew what that meant, because the scoreboard showed 52.70 seconds, an Olympic record, for both Manuel and Canadian teenager Penny Oleksiak — a dead heat that meant both took gold.
Manuel, though, shared it with a wider audience — all young African-American girls. None had ever before won an individual Olympic medal in swimming. After preparation that took a lifetime, Manuel thus became a role model in less than a minute.
“Hopefully it will get them inspired,” Manuel said. “The gold medal wasn’t just for me. It was for people who came before me and inspired me to stay in this sport, and for people who believe that they can’t do it. I hope that I’m an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. They might be pretty good at it.”
Manuel’s performance was not only significant, it was stunning. The field consisted not just of the 16-year-old Oleksiak, who entered the event with three medals already to her credit, but with more formidable opponents all around. Australia’s Cate Campbell was the top seed, the world-record holder — indeed, swimmer of six of the eight fastest times in history — who swam the anchor leg of the Aussies’ gold-medal winning 4x100 relay team earlier in the meet. Cate’s younger sister Bronte had a personal best that made her the third fastest in the event’s history. A gold-silver finish not just for Australia, but for the Campbell family of Brisbane, seemed plausible.
Manuel, a 20-year-old from Sugar Land, Texas, hadn’t come here expecting such a performance. She had, though, arrived with a sense of what her participation meant. She and Lia Neal, a teammate of Manuel’s at Stanford, gave the U.S. women’s team two African-American swimmers for the first time. But Manuel has struggled with embracing her role as, as she said, a “black swimmer,” and shoving it aside.
“Just coming into this race tonight, I kind of tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me just being in this position,” Manuel said. “But I do hope that it kind of goes away. . . . 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 break records. And that’s not true.”
Yet Manuel had largely struggled en route to her first Olympics, failing to post a best time at U.S. trials. She finally did that in semifinals of the 100 here, a 53.11, but even that was just the sixth-best time in the world this year.
“I haven’t gotten best times in a while in long course,” she said, differentiating from the distance she swims in college. “It was time.”
Manuel’s start was solid, and she swam well over the first 50 meters, turning in third. But Cate Campbell was there, as expected, in first, a blistering 24.77 seconds. Bronte trailed her by a quarter of a second. Manuel was fighting for a medal, for sure, but a gold seemed unlikely.
But from there, the Campbells inexplicably fell off. Cate’s last 50 was 28.47 seconds, and she finished sixth. Bronte’s final length was 28.00, and she finished fourth. And here came Manuel and Oleksiak.
“That was a big shock for everyone in the final,” said bronze medalist Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden. “. . . I think that was the biggest surprise so far of this competition.”
Both Oleksiak and Manuel reached for the wall. They both touched. A single light — indicating first — lit up on each of their starting blocks.
“I was like, ‘Oh, I’m on the medal stand,’ ” Manuel said. “And then I turned around and saw the ‘1’ by my name, and I was super-surprised.”
Manuel thought about predecessors and contemporaries — particularly Cullen Jones, an African-American gold medalist before her, and Neal, her teammate and friend. But she knows, too, that when Michael Phelps wins a race, he can just break it down. He isn’t asked the kind of broad societal questions she faces.
“It means a lot, especially with what’s going on in the world today, just with some of the issues with police brutality,” Manuel said. “This win kind of helps bring hope and change to some of the issues that are going on in the world. I went out there and swam as fast as I could, and my color just comes with the territory.”
She tried, as so many gold medalists have before her, to hold back tears. She couldn’t. But the tears weren’t just for her pursuit. Phelps has changed swimming by his unprecedented accomplishments. But somehow, in one race, Manuel made his changes seem narrow.
“I’m super-glad with the fact that I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport,” she said. “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.’ ”
How about: Simone, the Olympic champion.