I let out a small gasp when I saw Simone Manuel surge the last 20 meters of the women’s 100-meter freestyle. Though she wasn’t the favorite, I had been rooting for her not purely out of patriotism, but instead out of a tremendous feeling of pride in seeing a young woman whose dark-hued skin matched mine swim in an Olympic final.
Unlike many black Americans, I had decent access to public pools growing up--my parents made it a priority. We had only lived in Dallas, Texas, for three years since immigrating from Nigeria, but stories of children--black children--drowning in community pools and lakes led them to enroll me in a tadpole swimming class. The local Y offered them for cheap.
I was only 5, but I remember loving the smell of chlorine and the secure feeling of the flotation device underneath me. But those days didn’t last long. Every other night when my mother washed my hair, clumps of it would fill the tub and pack the comb. We tried shower caps underneath the swim cap, deep conditioning and a few "anti-chlorine" products, but my hair would not stop breaking. So we gave up and stuck with land sports, like basketball.
The sting of seeing the flower-print bathing suit in my underwear drawer every day eventually faded away as my hair began growing back. As I got older, I noticed that it wasn’t uncommon for other black girls to avoid the pool. In fact it’s become a popular and self-fulfilling stereotype about black women. We’re overly preoccupied with our hair, so we willingly forgo swimming lessons despite the fact that we drown at rates five times that of white children.
Black women, whether relaxed or natural, are so often shamed for their "nappy" hair that something as vital and enjoyable as swimming becomes an undue burden out of fear that broken or damaged hair will be further criticized. The chemicals used to maintain swimming pools are remarkably damaging to black women’s hair--which is ironic, due to the fact that, historically, pool access in the U.S. has been steeped in racism.
As recreational swimming became more popular in the 1920s and '30s, black children were routinely denied entrance to the pools, sometimes violently. But "Whites Only" pools didn’t end when Jim Crow did; some pools were effectively privatized just to avoid being integrated, and last June in McKinney, Texas, we were reminded that public pools continue to be just one more space for the brutalization of black women.
But when I saw Manuel, a fellow Texan, unleash plentiful inches of healthy hair after tying for gold, I shrieked. It was the cherry on top of a historic moment. She did it and kept her hair, too.
After a celebratory tweet storm, I called my mother.
"Did you see the other Simone?"
The words flew out of my mouth as if I was the one with the gold around my neck. We talked about Manuel’s win and our first attempt at swimming lessons. Then she reminded me of the second go-round.
The one where having an awkward preteen body and a male swimming instructor made me beg her to sign me up for any other sport, though I quickly made friends with the other 12-year-olds. The one where my younger siblings struggled immensely and gulped pool water like it was blue Powerade. The one that was cut short because my single mom who worked two jobs just didn’t have the time to shuffle three kids from home, to pool, to hours-long sessions washing hair that just ended up clogging the tub anyway.
Looking at Manuel on the podium, tears cascading down her face as the Star-Spangled Banner played, I couldn’t help but marvel in her victory. I don’t know Manuel’s personal story, but with her being a black woman swimming on an Olympic team, Team USA at that, I can only imagine the hundreds of looks she must have received over the years suggesting that she doesn’t belong.
I wonder how many products she went through before finding one that protected her hair from being hopelessly ruined by chlorine.
I wonder what her own family sacrificed to keep her in the pool. Was it money, time, or rather a sense of belonging a black family might feel cheering for their loved one on a basketball court or a track stadium instead of a swimming arena?
I wondered how she dealt with the weight of the hopes of a thousand black girls who, for one systemic reason or another, will never know the tranquil feeling of floating in the water, until she addressed it herself.
"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,’" Manuel said in a postrace interview.
But I’m not worried about whether black girls will aspire to follow in Simone Manuel’s trail-blazing footsteps. We have always been our best heroes, and I’m confident that the impact of her victory will be felt in the decades to come.