Simone Manuel was emotional amid her triumph Thursday night in the women’s 100 meter freestyle swimming competition in Rio. But she also took the moment to make her stance clear about race and police violence in the United States.
The victory makes her the first African-American woman to win a medal in any Olympic swimming contest. Manuel, 20, upset world record holder Cate Campbell of Australia and tied with Penny Oleksiak of Canada at the Rio Games on Thursday night, breaking Campbell’s previous record with a time of 52.70 seconds.
“This medal is not just for me, it’s for a whole bunch of people who came before me and have been an inspiration to me, Maritza (McClendon), Cullen (Jones), and it’s for all the people after me who believe they can’t do it and I just want to be an inspiration to others that you can do it,” she told NBCSports.
But she also reflected on the deadly violence between police and the African-American community that has been in the news consistently, and has apparently had an effect on her. She spoke on how she valued her win amid the controversy.
“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” Manuel said, according to USA Today. “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.”
As it has for many Black athletes that have come before her, race is an underlying issue that she deals with, but hopes that one day she won’t have to.
“It is something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot,” Manuel said. “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.’
During the contest, Campbell was on pace to take her world record even lower when she made the turn out front, with little sister Bronte right behind her. But the Aussie siblings, who teamed up to lead their country to gold in the 4×100 freestyle relay, couldn’t hang on.
Bronte faded to fourth, and Cate dropped all the way to sixth at the finish.
Instead, it was Manuel who touched at the same time as 16-year-old Oleksiak, the youngest swimmer in the field. The Canadian became the first swimmer born in the 21st century to win a gold medal in any Olympic sport.
Manuel and Oleksiak shared the top spot on the medal podium, with the U.S. anthem played first followed by the Canadian anthem. Tears rolled down each of Manuel’s cheeks as she sang along.
She brought home the first gold medal win for the U.S. in the women’s 100-meter freestyle since 1984, when Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer took the gold that year.
The last Olympic tie for gold was in the men’s 50 free at the 2000 Sydney Games, when Americans Gary Hall Jr. and Anthony Ervin tied for the top spot on the podium.
At the time, Ervin was the first person of African-American heritage to win a gold medal. He is on the team again in Rio.
Until now, the most widely recognized African-American in Olympic swimming was Cullen Jones, who won two gold medals and two silver medals in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. However he did not make the 2016 Olympic team.
— With Associated Press