Simone Manuel, arguably the world’s most clutch swimmer, stared down a 50-meter pool on Sunday night. She knew that, after a beep, the next 25 seconds — after five years and thousands of hours in the water — would determine if she made it back to the Olympics.
“Before I dove in,” she said, “I felt like it was my moment.”
Manuel qualified for the U.S. Olympic swim team in her final chance, winning the 50m freestyle on the eighth and final day of the Olympic Trials. She did so three days after failing to make the final of the 100m free — her Olympic gold-medal event — and disclosing that she was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome that significantly affected her prep all spring.
Manuel took somewhere between 35 and 40 strokes in the final, smashed her hand on the wall and thought to herself, “God, please!”
She emerged from the surf, turned to her right and saw Abbey Weitzeil shooting over the lane line. That’s the moment Manuel realized she made the team (later learning she won the race by .01 over Weitzeil, who also qualified in the event).
“More than anything I’m relieved,” Manuel said. “Today may have been the longest day of my life. That 50m may have been the longest 50m of my life.”
Manuel capped an unreal week, an unreal spring and an unreal one-year Olympic postponement. It’s another line in a career that, if Manuel let critics and personal challenges affect her determination, would never have gotten this far.
“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 last year, “because I’m successful in a sport that, in some ways, people think that I shouldn’t be successful.”
One Olympic champion got onto the team on the last day in Omaha. Two others did not.
Eight-time Olympic medalist Nathan Adrian finished third in the men’s 50m free, missing the team by one spot in a bid to make a fourth Olympics.
Caeleb Dressel won and tied his American record of 21.04 seconds. Dressel was followed by Michael Andrew (21.48), who like Dressel, qualified for his third individual event in Tokyo.
Adrian was third in 21.73. The 32-year-old said afterward he doesn’t know what’s next for him in swimming.
“If I was to commit to anything right now, it would really, genuinely mean nothing,” said Adrian, who swam at every major international meet from 2008-19. “What I will commit to doing is taking a good break, letting my body, letting my mind just recover.”
Adrian, who won the 2012 Olympic 100m free by .01, was diagnosed with testicular cancer two and a half years ago and had two surgeries before returning to swimming in 2019.
Ryan Held, who was in the 2016 Olympic 4x100m free relay final with Dressel, Adrian and Michael Phelps, missed the Olympic team in an unprecedented situation.
For the first time in modern history (since 1984), the U.S. Olympic swim team must leave home a swimmer who would otherwise go to the Games due to roster limits. Thirteen different Americans qualified to swim only in relays, but the maximum a nation can enter is 12.
Held, sixth in the 100m free, had to be left off due to a world rankings formula that put him behind the other relay-only swimmers in priority order.
Bobby Finke and Michael Brinegar went one-two in the men’s 1500m free, the last event of Trials. They also went one-two in the 800m free last week.
The U.S. Olympic swim team of 53 is marked by youth and turnover. There are 10 teenage women, most since 1996. None of the men have been to multiple Olympics. First time that’s happened since 2000.
The storylines going into Olympic Trials led with Katie Ledecky and Dressel. Each won all of their finals and are ticketed for more individual gold in Tokyo.
Manuel, who won a female record seven medals at the 2019 Worlds, must now navigate training for another month. On Thursday, she said that a doctor told her that she needs two months off to let her body rest. That’s obviously not going to happen before August.
It’s unknown what she’ll be able to produce at the Olympics.
But in the last five years, Manuel has raced in six individual events among the Olympics and world championships. She won six medals in those races (four gold), went a personal best five times and set four American records. Manuel proved that she is the most clutch swimmer in the nation, if not the world.
And she did it again on Sunday, while being three tenths off her best time, but maybe more emphatically than ever.
“She could have not had a coach for the last year and still done what she did,” said her coach, Greg Meehan.
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