It was an emotional moment last night when Simone Manuel, drenched in water and tears, clutched the gold medal in swimming during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
The accomplishment is historic — with no other African-American woman ever winning the world’s highest prize in the sport. Manuel swam for all of us when the 20-year-old won the 100-meter freestyle swimming event with a record-breaking time of 52.70 seconds.
Manuel was very aware of the significance of the win, saying:
“This medal is not just for me, it’s for a whole bunch of people who have come before me and who have been inspirational for me … Maritza Correia (first Black woman to earn place on the U.S. Olympic swim team). And it’s 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 told the crowd during her post-win interview.
Swimming carries a certain stigma in the Black community, stemming from decades of segregation where African-Americans were often denied access to pools.
As a result, many generations of Black people never learned to swim — and so they didn’t have the tools to teach their children.
But with Manuel’s win, this age-old athletic ceiling has been shattered, leaving space for more Black women to swim behind her.
An emotional Simone told reporters that the significance of her victory is not lost on her.
She told reporters:
“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory. It is something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot. Coming into the race I tried to take weight of the black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not ‘Simone the black swimmer.’
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