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

Japanese pair edges Americans for historic Grand Prix Final figure skating title

Riku Miura, Ryuichi Kihara

Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara won the biggest title ever for a Japanese figure skating pair, taking the Grand Prix Final and consolidating their status as the world’s top active team.

Miura and Kihara, last season’s world silver medalists, barely outscored world champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier in Turin, Italy, in both Thursday’s short program and Friday’s free skate to win the six-pair event that is a preview of March’s worlds.

The Japanese totaled 214.58 points, distancing the Americans by a mere 1.3 points after Frazier erred on both of their side-by-side jumping passes in the free skate. Italians Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii took bronze.

“We had a very late start to our season than initially planned, so as we have been performing at each event, I see us getting stronger, improving things,” said Frazier, who with Knierim had their best short program and free skate scores of the autumn.

Knierim and Frazier didn’t decide to continue competing together this season until July.

“I feel a little personally disappointed tonight just for myself for my jumps,” Frazier continued. “I was a little all over the place and, normally, I can execute better, so I feel a little bad, but I’m very proud of us overall. We’ve done a great job of improving each competition and looking forward to the second half of the season where we can start tapping into our best skating.”

GRAND PRIX FINAL: Results | Broadcast Schedule

Miura and Kihara, who partnered in June 2019 and train in Ontario, both waited with trepidation for their final score to be posted, worried that each’s separate mistake on jumps might cost them the title. When they learned they won, both burst into tears.

“This was the first time in eight years that I made a mistake with a Salchow, so I thought we might not get a good score, and it would be my fault,” Kihara said.

Miura and Kihara entered the competition ranked No. 1 in the world by best scores this season ahead of Knierim and Frazier, who in March became the first U.S. pair to win a world title since 1979.

Last season, Miura and Kihara became the second Japanese pair to make a Grand Prix podium and to earn a world championships medal. Their ascension helped Japan win its first Olympic figure skating team event medal in February (a bronze that could be upgraded to gold pending the Kamila Valiyeva case).

In Grand Prix Final history, Japan had won 11 gold medals and 40 total medals, all in singles, before this breakthrough.

Knierim and Frazier, already the first U.S. pair to compete in the Grand Prix Final since 2015, became the first U.S. pair to win a Grand Prix Final medal. The Final has been held annually since 1996, though it was canceled the last two seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Miura and Kihara and Knierim and Frazier ascended to the top of the sport while the top five teams from the Olympics from Russia and China have not competed internationally since the Winter Games.

All Russian skaters are ineligible for international competition due to the war in Ukraine. China’s pairs, including Olympic champions Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, didn’t enter last March’s worlds and did not compete in the fall Grand Prix Series.

Later Friday, world champion Kaori Sakamoto of Japan led the women’s short program with 75.86 points, 1.28 ahead of countrywoman Mai Mihara. American Isabeau Levito, the 15-year-old world junior champion, was fifth of six skaters in her Grand Prix Final debut.

Canadians Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier topped the rhythm dance with 85.93 points, edging Americans Madison Chock and Evan Bates by .44. Both couples are bidding for the biggest international title of their careers. None of the Olympic medalists competed internationally this fall.

The Grand Prix Final ends Saturday with the men’s and women’s free skates and free dance, all live on Peacock.

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A Winter Olympic medal still being decided, 10 months later

Fanny Smith, Daniela Maier
It's still unknown whether Fanny Smith (green) or Daniela Maier (blue) is the Olympic ski cross bronze medalist. (Getty)

There is a second Winter Olympic medal result still in question, 10 months after the Games.

While the figure skating team event results are still unknown due to the Kamila Valiyeva case, the bronze medal in women’s ski cross is also in dispute.

Originally, Swiss Fanny Smith crossed the finish line in third place in the four-woman final at the Winter Games in February. Upon review by the International Ski Federation (FIS) jury, she was minutes later demoted to fourth place after making contact with German Daniela Maier near the end of the course. Maier, who originally was fourth, was upgraded to bronze.

“I tried to be OK with the fourth place. I was very disappointed, I have to say, [then] the jury was like this,” Maier said then. “I am really sorry for Fanny that it’s like this right now. … The jury decided like this, so accept it and be happy with the medal.”

Smith and the Swiss ski federation appealed. FIS reinstated Smith as the bronze medalist nine days after the race and six days after the Closing Ceremony. A FIS appeals commission met four times and reviewed video and written documentation for several hours before deciding that “the close proximity of the racers at that moment resulted in action that was neither intentional or avoidable.”

But that wasn’t the end. The case ended up reportedly going to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), whose rulings are usually accepted as final. The CAS process is ongoing, European media reported this week.

CAS has not responded to a request for comment. A FIS contact said Friday, “There is currently no update to provide in regards to the bronze medal in ski cross. Should there be any update, we will inform you.”

Smith said there should be news soon regarding the case, according to Blick.

Maier still has the bronze medal at her home and enjoys looking at it, according to German media, which also reported that the German ski federation expects Maier to win the case and keep the medal. Smith and Maier spoke extensively about it in recent training sessions and cleared things up. Maier said the best outcome would be bronze medals for both of them, according to the report.

For now, FIS lists Smith as the bronze medalist. The IOC lists Maier as the bronze medalist.

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