Simone Manuel has shocked the swimming world by qualifying for the upcoming Olympics only a few months after struggles with health problems forced her to take a leave of absence from the sport. On Sunday, she won the 50-meter freestyle event at the Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Nebraska, by a tiny margin of 0.01 seconds.
The pure joy was evident on Manuel’s face as Abby Weitziel, the second-place winner, immediately swam over the lane line to embrace her friend. Manuel’s eyes filled with tears as she threw her head back into the water in relief and elation.
“This year has been difficult, especially the last couple months,” Manuel said, only moments after her amazing win. “But before I dove in, I felt like it was my moment. And I’m so thankful for the blessings that God has given me.”
This win was a monumental and vital one for Manuel, who made history back in 2016 when she became the first black female swimmer to win an individual gold medal. The one-year delay of the Tokyo Olympics has proved to be very difficult for her well-being and overall athletic performance.
Earlier this week, Manuel failed to qualify for the finals of the 100-meter freestyle, the exact event that she won gold five years ago in Rio. This was a huge surprise, and she thought her dreams of competing in another Olympics had been dashed.
At an emotional news conference after that loss, Manuel shared her experience and struggles with overtraining syndrome. In March, she was diagnosed with this illness, and both in and out of the pool, she began experiencing intense symptoms, including bodily shut-down, depression, anxiety, irritability, loss of appetite, and insomnia.
After receiving the diagnosis, Manuel started working with her doctors to develop a modified training schedule, but her condition continued to decline rapidly. With her body stumbling, she was forced to take a three-week break from swimming until mid-April, which threatened to keep her from competing at the Olympic Trials. In that period, Manuel did not even swim one lap.
“My body wasn’t doing what I knew it was capable of,” Manuel said. “I had moments where I didn’t even want to go to the pool, because I knew it was gonna be bad…And that was hard for me to grasp during that time.”
Despite some setbacks, Manuel’s dream has come true and her hard work as paid off. Her win in the 50-meter freestyle final secured her a spot on the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team, and she is headed to Tokyo! Even though she did not perform as well as she’d hoped, Manuel has a lot to be proud of. In an incredible turn of events, she was able to qualify for the Olympics directly following a months-long illness and three-week break of not swimming at all.
“Even though I didn’t make it in the 100, my goal was to make the team,” Manuel said. “I’ll have to regroup and hopefully swim faster so I can win a medal for Team USA. I’m glad I can walk away with my head held high.”
If sports fans can be sure of one thing, it is this. We have not seen the last of Simone Manuel. In these past few months, she has proved her resilience and determination, and suffice it to say that all eyes will be on her come the Tokyo Olympics.
Allyson Park is a writer and media intern for Knup Sports and the Sports 2.0 Network covering a variety of topics including football, soccer, and baseball. Connect with Allyson on Instagram @allysonpark01.