Simone Manuel’s experiences, before and after Rio, shape her voice for change today

Simone Manuel
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A pivotal 45 minutes of Simone Manuel‘s swimming career transpired at last summer’s world championships.

Manuel had just underperformed in the semifinals of her best event, the 100m freestyle, tying for seventh place to get into the eight-woman final.

That came after relay silver medals behind rival Australia in her first two events, including getting passed on the anchor leg the night before (granted, in the first relay, Manuel had her best 100m split ever).

Three years earlier at the Rio Olympics, Manuel tied for the 100m free title with Canadian Penny Oleksiak. It was an upset. Manuel became the first U.S. Black female swimmer to take individual gold.

She went into the 2019 World Championships as the reigning Olympic and world champion, ticketed as one of the biggest U.S. stars across all sports at the Tokyo Games. Imagine what she felt after coming .15 of a second from missing the 100m free final at worlds, where results determine Olympic favorites.

That put her in lane one for the final, three lanes from the other favorites. Rarely does a swimmer win from lane one.

Manuel described worlds, and in particular, that time after the 100m free semifinals, as her most difficult experience in this Olympic cycle.

She felt pressure not only because of her past accomplishments, but also from something no other swimmer in the field faced.

“As a Black swimmer, I do know, that if I wouldn’t have swam well [in the final], that there would probably going to be a lot of negative comments about me,” she said. “Those are experiences I’ve had to deal with. I know that they, unfortunately, come to the surface.”

Manuel, who turns 24 next week, first wanted to swim on a team at age 4, following her older brothers, Ryan and Chris.

She remembers, at age 6, a boy telling her after practice that he didn’t want to play with her because she’s Black.

At 12, she stopped taking ballet classes after 10 years (her favorite performance was “Nutcracker,” which she did annually) and focused on swimming. That’s about when a girl on her Houston-area club team invited all of the swimmers to her birthday party except Manuel, the only Black girl in the group.

As a teenager, somebody asked Manuel why she was swimming rather than running track.

“It’s important to share those details, not only to educate others, hopefully, to be anti-racist and inclusive, but also to educate and inspire those who constantly feel like a minority, constantly feel counted out, to show them that you can do this,” Manuel said while promoting P&G’s Measure of Greatness digital film, which tells the inspiring athlete stories of four Olympic and Paralympic athletes, including Manuel.

Manuel considered quitting swimming in those early competitive years. She wasn’t sure if it was the right sport for her. In her early teens, she for a time lost joy after being moved up to a training group with older swimmers, no longer practicing with kids her own age.

She credited the support from her parents, Sharron, a consultant pharmacist, and Marc, a business analyst, both athletes growing up. And her youth coach, Allison Beebe.

In 2015, as a Stanford freshman, Manuel began feeling very sick. She spent eight months that year with chronic sinusitis and a complete blockage of her right nostril. She also had a stress fracture in her ribs. Six weeks before the 2016 Olympic Trials, she had balloon sinuplasty nasal surgery.

She refrained from speaking publicly about it because she didn’t want it to be framed as an excuse if she swam poorly at trials or the Olympics.

“So I was dealing with a lot of that pretty internally and still trying to make sure my goals were at the forefront,” she said.

Manuel made the difficult choice to redshirt her sophomore season in 2015-16, plus take a quarter off school, and focus on training for the Games. She set her daily alarm for 5:53. She went to the Olympic Trials in Omaha and finished second in the 50m and 100m frees, where two individual spots were available.

Manuel went to Rio ranked ninth in the world in the 100m free and seventh in the 50m free. At the Games, she took .55 off her 100m free personal best, shattering the American record to take gold. In the 50m free, she chopped .24 off her best time ever (significant in a 24-second race) and took silver, just .02 shy of gold.

“I can’t begin to tell you what this means for the sport of swimming in the United States,” longtime NBC Sports swimming analyst and Olympic champion Rowdy Gaines said on the broadcast after the 100m free.

In the four days following that race, there were 23,210 searches for a swim team on — triple the total amount of searches during the entire eight-day Olympic Trials a month earlier.

USA Swimming dubbed it, The Simone Effect.

Manuel swept the sprints at the 2017 Worlds, again with her fastest times ever (both American records). She developed the best possible reputation for a swimmer: a knack to go best times at the most important meets.

“When I first started in swimming, it was pretty difficult for me,” Manuel said in a speech in front of her USA Swimming peers at last November’s Golden Goggles Awards, where she became the first Black swimmer to win Athlete of the Year. “It still is difficult to this day.”

As has been noted in recent stories, Manuel is using her platform as an Olympic champion to be a voice for awareness and change about race in America. When she turned professional in 2018, her swimwear deal with Tyr had an inclusion rider.

“That her partners extend meaningful opportunities to traditionally underrepresented groups and that diversity be reflected in the creative efforts she pursues with the brand,” according to Tyr. That included having Black hair stylists, makeup artists and models for shoots.

“Growing up, I didn’t see many representations of Black swimmers,” Manuel said. “Even now, with the age of social media, there aren’t many Black models or minority models that are used, and so it creates this narrative that only white people swim.”

Three days after George Floyd was killed in May, Manuel wrote in a lengthy Instagram post, “Times change. Calendar dates change, but racism still remains. If we want a better country, we ALL must fight for equality and justice. No one escapes the bonds of injustice.”

Manuel said she hoped for a day when she isn’t referred to as, “Simone the Black swimmer,” after her Rio Olympic success.

“Because 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,” she said in Brazil, “and that’s not true because I work just as hard as anybody else. I want to win just like everybody else.”

Manuel put in that work leading up to the 2019 World Championships. Her coach at Stanford, Greg Meehan, knew she was prepared for her schedule at that meet — six events, including the 100m freestyle semifinals and the 4x200m free relay final on the night of July 25.

After Manuel’s subpar 100m free semifinal, Meehan estimated she had 45 minutes to ready mentally for the relay. The moment was significant, given her last two races: getting passed on anchor the night before and almost missing the 100m free final.

“The beauty of my relationship with Simone is we can call it what it is, just acknowledging that her 100m semifinal swim was a really lousy swim, and that’s OK, it happens,” Meehan said. “I’ve been coaching her for six years. I’ve learned I need to be direct.”

Meehan gave Manuel simple reminders from training for swimming twice in one session. Manuel then led off the relay in 1:56.09, a personal-best 200m free by .92 of a second. Australia again took gold, but, to Meehan, Manuel turned around her meet.

The next night, Manuel lined up for the 100m free final in lane one. She felt more pressure for that race than going into the Olympic final.

She exploded off the block. Manuel had the fastest reaction time, led by nearly a half-second at the 50-meter turn and held off the two fastest sprinters in history to win. She also hit another personal best. Another American record.

“If she didn’t have a great swim on the 800m free relay, I’m not sure she comes back the next night and wins the 100m free,” Meehan said, “and subsequently the 50m free.”

Manuel finished the meet with four golds and three silvers, becoming the first woman to earn seven medals at a single worlds. She could swim six events in Tokyo, as a medal favorite in all of them. No U.S. woman has won more than four gold medals at a single Olympics.

Back in Rio, a barely 20-year-old Manuel was thrust into a position of being the face of diversity in the sport. Whether she was ready for it or not.

Now, Manuel is a Stanford graduate with a degree in communication and a minor in African-American studies. She is speaking up more than ever, while spending most of the spring training in a backyard pool.

It was two lanes and 25 yards. Manuel in one lane. Katie Ledecky in the other. Meehan on the deck, realizing it was another pivotal time in Manuel’s career: sharing her voice and her message during the pandemic and since Floyd’s death.

Manuel accompanied words with action. She partnered with Hunger Not Impossible to provide meals around Houston. Manuel remembers 2005, when cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents who had lived in New Orleans went to stay in her family’s one-story house for months following Hurricane Katrina.

“There were so many people who reached out to my family within my church or the school system or the swim team that provided important essential necessities that we needed,” Manuel said. “This is exactly what I want to do for the world now.”

In the next 12 months, Manuel can make an even greater impact, reach a broader audience at the Tokyo Olympics. Another Simone Effect.

“My existence in the sport of swimming and the success that I’ve had in the sport of swimming is a protest in itself,” she said, “because I’m successful in a sport that, in some ways, people think that I shouldn’t be successful.”

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MORE: U.S. athletes qualified for Tokyo Olympics

David Quinn returns as U.S. men’s hockey head coach

David Quinn

David Quinn will be the U.S. men’s hockey head coach for a third consecutive global tournament, returning for May’s world championship after guiding the team to the quarterfinals at the 2022 Olympics and to fourth place at the 2022 World Championship.

Quinn was named San Jose Sharks head coach last July 26. The Sharks are in last place in the Western Conference, so their season will end before worlds start on May 12, co-hosted by Finland and Latvia.

As usual, worlds take place during the Stanley Cup playoffs. NHL players whose teams get eliminated in the playoffs are sometimes added to national teams during the world championship.

Quinn is the first person to be the U.S. men’s hockey head coach at three consecutive global tournaments since Scott Gordon did so at worlds in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

The last person to coach three consecutive tournaments that included an Olympics was Peter Laviolette in 2006. The last person to coach the U.S. at four consecutive global tournaments was Dave Peterson from 1985 through 1988.

Last year, the U.S. men lost a world championship semifinal for an 11th consecutive time, again missing out on a first gold or silver finish since 1950.

The U.S. has lost all 11 of its semifinals at worlds since the IIHF reinstituted a bracketed playoff round in 1992. Its last silver medal at a standalone worlds was in 1950. Its last gold was in 1933.

While the NHL didn’t participate in the last two Olympics, rosters at the annual world championships include NHL players.

This year’s U.S. roster has not been named yet.

Last year’s world team had three 2022 Olympians: goalie Strauss Mann and forwards Ben Meyers and Sean Farrell.

The most notable NHL veterans on last year’s team were five-time All-Star defenseman Seth Jones and forward Alex Galchenyuk.

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Mikaela Shiffrin talks grief, victory, resetting records in Alpine skiing


All season, Mikaela Shiffrin reached heights that exceeded expectations and imaginations. Shiffrin won 14 World Cup races to reach 88 victories, breaking Inegmar Stenmark’s career record. An encore of Shiffrin’s record-breaking 87th World Cup win airs on NBC on Sunday from 12-1 p.m. ET.

The double Olympic champion discussed what the season meant, how she’s still wrestling with grief and lessons learned on and off the slopes.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OlympicTalk: All season long, there has been so much hype around you breaking the record and reaching 87. It’s interesting because it seems like that’s not what has mattered most to you all season. You compete because you genuinely love skiing. How were you able to keep your focus on your love for the sport rather than reaching 87 all season, when that’s the narrative around you?

Mikaela Shiffrin: Thank you. That’s a really thoughtful way to ask the question. It’s been a little bit challenging because everybody has been talking so much about the record. The last few weeks, especially leading up to the actual moment when I did reset it, I felt a lot of noise in my head that was sort of outside what I wanted to be focusing on.

But when I’m skiing, the feeling that I get is something I can focus on because I love it so much. Making a really strong, powerful fast turn is kind of hard to explain, but it’s like you step on the accelerator of a really nice car, and you’re just like, whoa. … It’s just a cool feeling. If I really hyper focus on that, then everything else kind of falls away.

You’ve talked about how those winning moments in reality are actually a blur, just two minutes of your life. You’ve heard from Ingemar Stenmark, and then you’ve had Paula Moltzan, your brother and sister-in-law, your mom, and your boyfriend, Aleksander Aamodt Kilde, by your side during some of these amazing milestones you’ve achieved this season. Can you sum up how that’s added to those moments? 

Shiffrin: When these record-setting moments happen in my career, I feel like I’m not able to really process it. People have asked, has it sunk in yet? And it never has, even my first Olympic medal back in 2014 in Sochi, that never actually sunk in. What helps me to process things is the experience surrounding it and who is there.

For that 87th race, my brother and his wife came to Sweden from Colorado and surprised my mom and I there in Sweden. That moment was more meaningful than the race itself, but it also gave me something — like almost a vessel to tie the race to — in my own mind. That helps me process it, and it helps me put a little bit more emotion or more meaning to the actual race because if it was just 87 on its own, with nothing else going on, then it would never sink in, I guess.

Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup - Women's Slalom



You said people “equate winning with being OK and failure with being not OK” and how in reality that has nothing to do with how fast you came down the mountain. So how are you doing now? Are you OK?

Shiffrin: I am doing well, on most days. Really terrible on some days, and OK on all the rest. I think it’s pretty much how life is. I don’t know. Some days I feel overwhelmed. Some days I miss my dad so much I feel like it’s the day after he died and that none of this time [that has gone by] since then even ever happened. Sometimes I feel positive and psyched and happy.

But everybody around me, the whole team I work with, my coaches, my mom, who’s one of my coaches, Aleks, my boyfriend — being able to work with a really incredible group of people is something that keeps me positive every day, and they’ve actually made it possible for me to have more really good days — mostly really good days.

Thank you for sharing that. You said, “When you fail, it feels like the end. When you succeed, it feels like the beginning.” Do you feel like you’ve turned a page from those dark days, and if so, what is this the start of for you? If you were to give this next season of life that you’ve walked into a name, what would it be?

Shiffrin: I don’t know. … I think we talk a lot about difficult times or darker moments in life, and we want to move past it. We want to get over it and just have it in the rearview and think now we’re good, that’s behind me. But I think there’s plenty of dark days that are ahead of me still. There’s a lot that can happen in life that derails you right when you’re feeling good. I feel like right when I’m having a great time, something bad really happens. It’s kind of a constant feeling of wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.

I don’t feel very fearful of it. I just know that at some point, something’s going to go wrong. It might be next season. I mean, this season was incredible, but you don’t really sustain that kind of consistent level of success. Most people don’t even sustain it through a single season, let alone for multiple seasons.

I don’t see it as if now that I have this great season, I know all the answers, and I’m going to be good for the rest of my career. I expect that next season, a lot of the women I was competing against are going to come back with faster skiing, and it’s going to be an even harder fight than it has been. I might not win as many races, I might not win any races. I am going to work to try to fight for wins and podiums, but we just don’t know how it’s going to go. It’ll be a season of unknowns.

For the past six months, I felt like I’ve been riding a wave, and at some point, the wave is done — you’re done. Like, that’s it, you’ve ridden the wave, and now it’s over and you have to paddle back out and try to catch a new wave. I guess next season, or whenever it is, I’ll be looking out for the next swell, basically.

There’s a powerful quote that says, “You’ve changed, so even if you could go back, you wouldn’t belong.” Does that resonate with you? When you think back to those hard seasons — the trauma of dealing with your dad’s passing, the sleepless nights that came after, the Beijing Olympics — all of those hard experiences shaped you into the Mikaela Shiffrin that’s sitting in front of me. How would this Mikaela handle those experiences?  

Shiffrin: I think I would probably handle them the same. I learned so much from everything that’s been happening the last several years. But I don’t necessarily have a better capacity to deal with the pain of losing my dad, or the disappointment of the Olympics and facing sort of the backlash through media or all of the challenges.

There’s this idea that when we we learn and grow through life that would help us handle things better or be less uncomfortable when things go wrong. I don’t think I would be less uncomfortable. I would probably still react the same way and learn the same lessons.

I’ve learned to handle difficult situations better. I have more perspective on what’s really, really important to me in life. Disappointment, failure and challenging experiences, they don’t change. They just are, and they happen and I don’t know that you just kind of move through it, I guess. Hopefully you handle it with grace, but it doesn’t always go that way, either.

Do you think this was this a season that made every bump in the road that you’ve experienced on your ski journey (obviously, with the exception of your dad’s passing) worth it? If not, what would make it worth it?

Shiffrin: I do. One thing I tell my teammates, especially if they have a tough race, is when you get your first podium, or when you have your first top 10 or top five, or have a good race again, this moment is going to matter to you a lot less. It’s really hard right now, but you will have another best result. You’re going to keep working, and you’re going to have really great races again, and then you’re going to look back on this moment and feel like this was just laying the groundwork for the more successful periods. It’s just peaks and valleys, basically, but the peaks make the valleys worth it.

Like you said, there’s definitely some exceptions there, but if we just focus on my career in the sport, you will not win every single race. When you do win, it does make everything else worth it, or when you have those races that feel truly spectacular, it does make it worth it. I guess that’s the only reason I’m still doing it is because it is worth it. When I finally feel like it’s not worth it, then I’ll probably retire.

Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup Finals Andorra 2023 - Day 5 - Women's & Men?s Slalom & Super L.

You’ve talked about struggling with intensity and duration of focus over the last two seasons due to grief and trauma, which in turn impacted your memory and ability to remember the course. What specific work have you done to help regain that focus?

Shiffrin: Some of it is time. There’s basically no substitute for time and how that can heal certain things. I don’t heal from losing my dad, but parts of the chemical changes that happened in your brain from that trauma, from the grief, you do start to heal some of those bits and pieces. It’s kind of like there’s a scar, but the scar becomes less sensitive a little bit. So with my memory and those things, a lot of it is just addressing that.

For the first season leading up to the Olympics, I talked with a sports psychologist, and it was really helpful, but I feel like it was sort of missing the point of what I really needed, which was more like an overall psychologist and maybe more specifically grief counseling. Basically trying to uncover what happens in my brain when I lost my dad and the trauma of all that — everything that goes along with it.

Sometimes I feel like I haven’t done anything to improve, but then on other days, so much of it is just acknowledging what I feel, why I feel that way, what the challenges have been. Sometimes it’s going easy on myself and sometimes it’s holding myself accountable.

Just to even be able to admit that there’s an effect, it took talking with somebody who was able to tell me [what I’ve been experiencing] is a legitimate thing that happens when you experience grief. It’s certainly not a linear path, but there is an actual impact on your brain and your memory. After hearing that for the first time, it made a lot of sense because I’ve been feeling that — so just making that connection was helpful. It was realizing that you don’t have to go through life saying that there’s no problem, and I’m fine. You don’t have to be fine all the time.

Grief comes with so many different emotions. It comes in waves. Which emotions have been the strongest for you, and how have you let it out?

Shiffrin: I think my strongest, strongest emotion has been anger. I’m not naturally a very angry person, but that’s been what I’ve experienced the most. I don’t like feeling angry or sad. I prefer to be happy and laughing and just around the people that I love, but sometimes I get kind of in a little bit of a spiral of feeling angry. It’s sort of satisfying.

I can go down the rabbit hole a little bit with that, and that’s been something I’ve been working on trying to understand and just admit to that, when I started to feel angry, and overwhelmingly sad, that the rest of the things in life that I care about seem to go out the window, and that’s when I start to lose a lot of motivation. Especially at races, I feel like I don’t want to be here, and I really don’t care about this race. When it happens when I’m around family, I am less loving and empathetic towards them as well.

It takes a lot of presence of mind to be able to set that aside and say no, I have my family here. They are still here, and I do love them. It takes a lot of presence of mind to be able to say I do care about this race, and it’s OK to care about this race, even though sometimes it feels silly in the grand scheme of things. It’s OK to have things that I care about in life and to want to work towards that. I go through this whole process in my mind, step by step, to address it so that I get out of this cycle of anger because I don’t feel good when I’m angry. But somehow it’s satisfying and I can kind of let it take over a little bit.

Thank you for sharing that. Switching gears, I know you’re already excited to get back to work. What are you looking forward to most about working with your new coach Karin Harjo?

Shiffrin: I am really excited about her passion, thoughtfulness, kindness and attention to detail in the program. One of the first things she said to me was that I’m never going to be questioning where her commitment is. Right up front, she’s there, and if anything ever changes, she’ll be the first one to be upfront and honest with me. So I never have to question, “Are you good to still be doing this?” Because the program that I do comparative to any other athlete on the World Cup, it’s more time. It’s more stress, it’s more physical work, and also mental work.

It’s a tall order, and my coaches really have to be fully committed and know what they’re signing up for. [Harjo] was like, I know what I’m signing up for, and I am fully committed, and if that ever changes, I will let you know. I won’t let it get past the point where we can actually do this work together. So I’m so excited because I can feel the energy she’s going to bring to it, and I think I can feed off that.

You haven’t been home since September. What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you walk into your house?

Shiffrin: Hmm. I’m probably going to make some popcorn.

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