Sprinting master Simone Manuel gets lost in the discussion of great U.S. Olympic swimmers, often overshadowed by Katie Ledecky. This was supposed to be her breakout games, but a disappointing lead up to Tokyo has left her in one event — albeit one of the best chances at medaling.
A short distance freestyle expert, Manuel made her own mark in Rio, but without near as much fanfare as other members of the U.S. swim team. She left Brazil with two gold medals and two silver medals. An incredible haul, but overlooked when compared to the legendary games of Ledecky.
By the time we reached 2019 Manuel had ascended. Dominating the 2019 World Championships in Korea, she won a total of seven medals, including four gold and was named “Female Athlete of the Year” by USA Swimming. The stage was set for a massive games in Tokyo in 2020, until Covid hit.
The year long delay unquestionably hurt Manuel’s preparation. She arrived at the U.S. Olympic trials looking tired, and sluggish — a product of her altered training. When it came time for her signature event, the 100m freestyle, Manuel was spent — failing to qualify for the finals, and eliminated from consideration in the event.
Manuel opened up about suffering from “overtraining syndrome.” An illness that not only manifested itself physically through heart rate issues, but mentally. Manuel was suffering from depression, she had trouble sleeping, and the immense physical and mental toll the process took left her unable to live her life normally.
“Just walking up the stairs to the pool, I was gassed,” she said, fighting through tears and a quavering voice. And then there were the moments “where I didn’t want to go to the pool because I knew it was gonna be bad. That was hard because I love this sport. That was hard for me to grasp at that time.”
The pressure of being hailed a “great one” had finally worn down one of USA’s most promising swimmers, and for a while it appeared that she was going to miss Tokyo all together as a result.
Then, she triumphed. Having one last chance to qualify for Tokyo, Manuel gave everything she had in her final event, the 50m freestyle, and won in impressive fashion. Breaking down in tears at the finish and punching the water in victory. It might not have been the way the wanted to make the Olympic team, but she was in.
Now Manuel has a statement to make. She will only swim the 50m freestyle in Tokyo, a brutal 25 second sprint to victory, but make no mistake: Manuel is still the best in the world at the event, and she doesn’t face the kind of competition Ledecky does in her events. This could mean that while Manuel only has one swim, it could easily be gold.
How to watch Simone Manuel in Tokyo
- Women’s 50m freestyle semi-final 2: Friday, July 30 at 9:37 p.m.
- Women’s 50m freestyle finals: Saturday, July 31 at 9:37 p.m. ET.