Simone Manuel made history in swimming at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, when she became the first African-American woman to win an individual gold in Olympic swimming. Since then, the 22-year-old professional athlete and Stanford alumna continues to use her platform to help make the sport more inclusive and welcoming.
“Just being a minority in the sport of swimming, I think my win really inspired a lot of African-American parents and children to want to learn how to swim,” Manuel tells SELF. “[After Rio] I had many black adults and children come up to me and say, ‘Because of your win, I signed up for swim lessons’ and I think that’s something that’s super special, that my swim can inspire people to want to get in the water,” Manuel says. We spoke with Manuel while she was in New York City on behalf of USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash campaign, which promotes learning how to swim and practicing water safety.
Manuel says she actually doesn’t remember her first swim lesson—she was only 4 when her parents got her started. But she has been told she took to it rather quickly. “The second day of swim lessons, I swam across the pool,” Manuel says. “So I was pretty gifted, I guess some might say?” she laughs.
Setting a standard for inclusion
Last summer, Manuel signed a contract with sponsor TYR (a popular competitive swim and triathlon apparel brand) that includes a reportedly unprecedented inclusion rider. While she can’t share many specifics of the contract, she says that the rider is meant to “provide meaningful opportunities to traditionally under-represented groups,” and “make sure diversity is at the forefront” of TYR’s creative processes.
“Representation is super important, and so for me, that means including people in spaces where they may not always feel included. I’m so thankful that TYR has allowed that and hopefully this will drive more diversity in the sport of swimming and just drive more minorities to want to learn how to swim,” Manuel says.
There is one example Manuel gives of what these sort of opportunities look like: “Whenever I go to a photo shoot I ask for a black beautician, because oftentimes in the beauty industry, they’re not included,” she says. “So to bring them into the swim space allows them to feel that they belong there and also that they are important.”
Protecting her dreams
The biggest lesson Manuel learned as a pro athlete is that it’s crucial to “protect your dream,” from both yourself and others.
“When I say ‘Protect it from yourself,’ I mean protect it from your doubts, protect it from your inhibitions that say ‘Maybe this isn’t the sport for me.’ Because at times, I did feel that swimming wasn’t the sport for me and I don’t think that I was completely being fair to myself,” she says. “So you have to protect [your dream] from your own doubts but also protect it from other people’s doubts because there are people who will tell you you can’t do it or you’re not supposed to be doing it. If it’s your dream, go for it, and don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way, not even yourself.”
Manuel credits her family and coaches and her “stubborn personality” for pushing her through her own moments of self-doubt. (Yes, even Olympic gold medalists have them.) She also shares that her mentors and role models are crucial sources of inspiration.
It can be discouraging as an up-and-coming athlete, or even just a kid who loves a sport, to rarely see people who look like you excelling in it. Manuel considers herself lucky to find amazing African-American mentors in swimming, like Cullen Jones, Maritza Correia, and Sabir Muhammad. But she encourages people to look for examples in any sport. For example, Venus and Serena Williams have always been a source of inspiration for Manuel. “They are minorities in their sport, and they made it and continue to push through the hardships. I think it’s really just about trying to find those examples whether it’s in your sport or not.”
Manuel hopes she can be that person for other swimmers. “I stood on the shoulders of the people that came before me, and I’m hoping that someone else can feel the same about me.”