Simone Manuel of the United States wrote her name into history books on Thursday, August 11, with her triumph in the women’s 100m freestyle swimming. She has become the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual swimming event.
20-year-old Manuel tied for first place with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak, who also won a gold medal. They shared the podium along with the honors.
The Daily Mail is reporting that Manuel’s win gave the USA its first gold in the 100m freestyle since 1984.
Her victory had all the ingredients of good drama as she swam her way from third place at the 50m turn to second place, followed by the final battle with the Canadian teenager Oleksiak to jointly set an Olympic record time of 52.70 seconds.
An elated Manuel, nicknamed “Swimone” by close friends, was overwhelmed with emotion as she celebrated her win, describing it as a victory for herself and all pioneer black swimmers:
“This medal is not just for me, it’s for a whole bunch of people who have come before me and have been an inspiration to me. And it’s for all the people after me who believe you can’t do it, I just want to be an inspiration to others that you can do it.”
Manuel’s groundbreaking win in the swimming event carried the heavy weight of history with it – a history that no doubt has to be revisited at significant moments such as this one. Until recently, America’s public swimming pools have been a hotbed for not-so-subtle racism. Writing in the Vox, Victoria Massie described them as spaces where social inequalities played out.
In the first half of the last century, larger-sized swimming pools were built that allowed women and men to swim together. Such pools in white-dominated America typically shut out blacks and other coloured people, fearing close contact with black people. They especially wanted to prevent a possible poolside interaction between black men and white women and adopted “Jim Crow” racial segregation policies as a result.
Vox quotes Jeff Wiltse, a professor of history at the University of Montana as saying that some “Southern cities typically shut down their public pools rather than allow mixed-race swimming.” The sum effect of this was that African Americans (both male and female) often had no access to pool facilities; consequently, they rarely developed any skills or interests in swimming and other water sports.
Manuel says she hopes her victory serves to move the swimming towards an all-inclusive sport that sheds its dark history of tense race relations, especially in the United States.
“I’m super glad that I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport,” she said. “But at the same time, I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not like ‘Simone, the black swimmer,’ because the title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal.”