US swimmer Simone Manuel won a gold medal Thursday night in the 100-meter freestyle, an exciting feat. But the 20-year-old from Texas has made history in another way as well: She is the first female African-American swimmer to win a gold medal for the United States.
In near-disbelief, Ms. Manuel clasped her hand to her mouth after looking up at the scoreboard and realizing that she had tied for gold with Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak.
“I was pretty shocked,” she tells The New York Times. “My goal coming in was to get on the medal stand after seeing how I swam in prelims and semifinals. But getting a gold medal in my first Olympics, I still can’t describe it but I’m really excited about it.”
African-American swimmers have won medals before. Male swimmer Cullen Jones took home gold as a member of the 400-meter medley relay team and won silver in both the 50-meter free and 400-meter free relay in the 2012 London Olympics and won a gold medal as part of the 400-meter free relay team in Beijing in 2008. Maritza Correia won silver for the 4x100-meter free relay at the Athens Games in 2004. Lia Neal won bronze as part of the 4x100-meter free relay at the 2012 games in London and silver for the same relay this year in Rio.
And while Manuel is the first African-American female swimmer to win an individual medal – as well as a gold – for the US, she credits Mr. Jones, Ms. Correia, and Ms. Neal for paving the way.
“This medal is not just for me,” said Manuel. “It’s for some of the African-Americans that have come before me and have been mentors to me.”
Manuel is especially grateful for her teammate Neal. “She’s a huge part of my success.”
And she hopes she can serve as a role model to other young swimmers.
“I hope that I’m an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming,” she tells The Washington Post. “They might be pretty good at it.”
And her supporters have been active on Twitter, congratulating Manuel on her groundbreaking talent, including her Rio roommate and fellow gold medal winner Katie Ledecky.
While the Stanford student hopes to encourage other young black athletes to dip a toe in the pool, but at the same time, she says she resents the labels put on her.
“I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone, the black swimmer,’ ” she tells the Associated Press, “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 and that’s not true because I work just as hard as anybody else. I want to win just like everybody else.”