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Simone Manuel: The Title ‘Black Swimmer’ Makes It Seem ‘Like I’m Not Supposed to Win’

Breaking records and barriers, Simone Manuel made history at the Rio Olympics on Thursday, August 11, as the first black woman from the U.S. to take home a gold medal in an individual swimming event.

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The 20-year-old from Houston tied with Canadian Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter freestyle race, and the athletes both earned a gold medal and broke the world record with a time of 52.70 seconds.

Simone Manuel
Simone Manuel of the United States celebrates after winning gold in the Women’s 100m Freestyle Final on Day 6 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium on August 11, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

“This medal is not just for me. It’s for some of the African-Americans that have come before me that have been inspirations and mentors to me — to name a few, Maritza [Correia] and Cullen Jones,” Manuel said at the press conference following her historic win. “Coming into this race tonight I kind of tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me just being in this position.”

Simone Manuel
Simone Manuel reacts after winning gold.

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She also touched on the how she wants the Olympics to help ease the heightened racial tensions in the U.S. “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” the swimmer said. “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on.”

Manuel expressed her hope that America can get to a point where it’s not notable that she’s a world champion black swimmer. “I’m super glad with the fact 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 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 or I’m not supposed to be able to break a record. And that’s not true because I work just as hard as anybody else, and I love the sport, and I want to win just like everybody else!”

Simone Manuel
Simone Manuel Natacha Pisarenko/AP/REX/Shutterstock

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This has been the year of the Simones at the Olympics. The same day Manuel took the podium, fellow U.S. athlete Simone Biles won the gold in the women’s gymnastics individual all-around. “Simone Biles and I are practically the same person,” Manuel said. “She’s super cool and I met her, I think about a year ago, so we’ve hung out a couple of times and I’m very happy for how she’s done. We both bring gold medals back to Houston, Texas.” 

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