On a day in which Michael Phelps won his 22nd gold medal and Simone Biles cemented her legacy as the best gymnast ever by winning the all-around gold by a record margin, it was another American, Simone Manuel, who broke down the most significant barrier.
On Thursday night in Rio, Manuel became the first African American woman to ever win an individual swimming medal at the Olympics. It happened to be a gold. In the 100-meter freestyle, Manuel actually tied for first place with 16-year-old Canadian Penny Oleksiak, clocking in at 52:70, a new Olympic record.
The significance of the moment was not lost on her, particularly considering the racial tensions back home.
“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” Manuel said after the race, as reported by USA Today. “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.”
Her post-race interview was one of the most emotional ones of the entire Olympics.
“I just want to be an inspiration to others that you can do it,” Manuel said through tears.
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) August 12, 2016
According to USA Swimming, 70 percent of black people can’t swim at all, and as a result, African American children drown at a rate three times higher than their white peers.
This is because public pools in the United States historically went through extremes to keep black people away. Pools were not built in black neighborhoods, and, as Fusion notes, public pools would often turn private just to avoid integration during the civil rights movement.
Additionally, people held onto discriminatory and down-right ridiculous notions that black people simply couldn’t swim because they had too much muscle and therefore wouldn’t float. Unfortunately, those notions aren’t completely extinct. In 2013, when Italian Gymnastics Federation official David Ciaralli tried to defend racist comments by Italian gymnast Carlotta Ferlito directed towards Simone Biles, he instead expanded the bigotry to swimming.
“Why are there no black swimmers? Because their physical features don’t suit the sport,” Ciaralli said, adding that black people aren’t good swimmers because they “don’t have the buoyancy.”
Just last year in Texas, the state that Manuel is from, a cop was suspended after brutally snatching a black teenager by the hair, wrestling her to the ground and sitting on her, outside of a neighborhood pool.
June, 1964. Black children integrate the swimming pool of the Monson Motel. To force them out, the owner pours acid. pic.twitter.com/EszCjFiFW3
— #DontForgetFlint (@prisonculture) August 12, 2016
So, there is understandably a lot of attention paid to African American swimmers in the spotlight, and it’s something that the 20-year-old Manuel, who is competing in her first Olympics, has had to deal with throughout her career.
“It is something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot,” Manuel told reporters after winning gold. “Coming into the race I tried to take weight of the black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not ‘Simone the black swimmer.’
Diversity in a historically white sport is far more than symbolic.thinkprogress.org
Manuel and her teammate Lia Neal had already made history before Rio started — this was the first time that two black women had made the USA Olympic swim team simultaneously. But they are far from the only African American woman to make history in Rio. In gymnastics, Biles and Gabby Douglas are a part of the first majority minority American gymnastics team in Olympic history, along with Latina Laurie Hernandez. In tennis, all four female singles players were African American for the first time ever — Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens, and Madison Keys.
Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American to compete in the Olympics with a hijab, is also African American, and Ashleigh Johnson is the first black woman to compete on the U.S. Olympic water polo team.
At Olympic press conference for only black woman to win individual swimming medal, I’m the only black journalist. ???? pic.twitter.com/fwrWKSFYIB
— Jesse Washington (@jessewashington) August 12, 2016
There’s still time for Manuel to make more history, as she still is going to compete in the 50-meter freestyle.
But with her swim on Thursday night, Manuel has already done her part to change the face of the sport forever. Afterwards, she gave credit to the African American swimming pioneers who came before her, such as Maritza Correia and Cullen Jones.
“This medal is not just for me. It is for some of the African-Americans who have come before me,” she said. “This medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport and hopefully find love and drive to get to this point.