Defending Olympic champion Simone Manuel failed to qualify for the 100 meters freestyle final Thursday night and opened her heart while discussing the year’s struggles that led to the stunning turnaround at the U.S. swim trials in Omaha, Nebraska.
“Maybe it didn’t happen today, but this isn’t the last time you’re going to see me, and this isn’t the last time I’m going to do something great in the pool,” the Stanford All-American said through tears during a news conference.
The events put one of the United States’ biggest swim stars in jeopardy of competing at the Tokyo Games next month.
In the biggest surprise of the demanding trials so far, Manuel finished ninth in the 100 semifinals and missed advancing by two hundredths of a second. She hit the wall in 54.17 seconds, just behind Erika Brown in eighth place.
The time was well off her American record of 52.04 seconds. Manuel also finished in 53.83 last month at a tuneup meet in Austin, Texas.
The first Black American woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming, Manuel was expected to be a breakout star in Tokyo as a four-time medalist at the Rio Games in 2016 and seven-time medalist at the 2019 World Championships.
But Manuel said she was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome and took three weeks off at the end of March.
“It was kind of one of those bittersweet moments where my body wasn’t doing what I knew it was capable of,” she said.
In 2019, Manuel, 24, became the first American woman to sweep the 100 free and 50 free at a World Championships. She left that meet with four gold medals and three silver medallions.
Manuel is second to Stanford teammate Katie Ledecky for the most World Championship medals in history — 18 to 16.
Manuel’s final chance to qualify for Tokyo is in the 50-meter freestyle sprint Saturday and Sunday.
“I’m going to go for it,” she said. “I don’t think that I would have showed up to trials if I didn’t feel like I had any reason to be here. My faith is extremely important to me, and I’m confident that God wouldn’t put anything on me that I can’t bear.”
Manuel, who was outspoken during the Black Lives Matter protests last summer, revealed inner thoughts about how her life has changed since the Rio Games.
“I’m confident that the path that God has me on is the path that I’m supposed to be on,” she said. “And that’s nothing for other people to feel sorry about. It’s not even anything for me to feel sorry about. I find comfort in that. It’s hard to find comfort in that, but I think that’s definitely what faith is: comfort in the things that you can’t see and that you don’t know.
“So that’s the perspective that I had going into the hundred free. I just was going to go out there and do my best, and my best could have been really good. And unfortunately it wasn’t.”
Manuel said she has been evolving for the past five years, striving for something better. She hopes her current situation will inspire others to take care of their bodies and mental health issues.
“And so I think that each year I’m always learning and growing in and out of the sport,” she said. “I love who I’m becoming. I think that’s why I was able to walk out of the pool and have my head held up because I did my best.”
Manuel said race relations played a role in her body’s breakdown. As the biggest Black name in her sport she has been expected to speak about social injustices in dozens of settings.
In some social media posts, Manuel has expressed growing frustration over the inequities that she has witnessed in the country.
“I do think that being a Black person in America played a part in it,” she said.“This last year for the black community has been brutal. It’s not something I can ignore, and it was just another factor that can influence you mentally in a draining way.”
Manuel signaled in early March her growing frustration, telling the Bay Area News Group, “It has definitely been pretty difficult training for five years. It already is hard training for four years. Doing it for an extra year is difficult on your mind and your body. Especially with this year, mentally it has been draining.”
The Stanford swimmers trained in a backyard pool in Atherton during the lockdown.
“Simone has to swim in her own lane because she is the only person in her household,” said Stanford’s Greg Mehan, the U.S. women’s Olympic coach. “They can’t stay in groups after practice. They can’t shower in the locker room. It has presented challenges to the cultural piece of our sport.”
Manuel also said in March that she was trying to stay positive knowing that “I am not the only athlete going through this, I’m not the only person that is going through these hardships while we’re going through this pandemic and all these injustices that are facing our country and are coming to the light.”
She tried to remain upbeat all the way through the 100 semifinals.
“I was having a lot of moments where I was just telling myself to believe, just believe in my abilities to just go out there and race,” Manuel said. “In the back of your head, there’s like this realistic voice saying, ‘OK, but you’ve only been in the water for eight weeks.’ ”
Former Cal star Abbey Weitzel, who had the second-fastest qualifying time in the 100 race, told reporters: “I am sad that (Simone) is not in the final. She is such a fighter and a racer. It will be sad not having her there. Hopefully she can have a good 50.”
Cal alum Ryan Murphy qualified first in the 200 backstroke with the Golden Bears Destin Lasco recording the fourth-fastest time.
Regan Smith, who is scheduled to attend Stanford after the Summer Olympics, qualified in the women’s 200 butterfly for her second individual event.
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Author: Elliott Almond