Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel is using her platform to speak out about racial injustices that she said make her feel excluded from the sport of swimming.
Despite all of her accolades, Manuel told CBS News she still feels ostracized and believes it’s because of “the climate of the world we live in."
"Sadly, there still is racism that exists," she said.
She said the sport "definitely has a long way to go when you're talking about diversity and inclusion.”
According to Swimming World, a 2014 report by USA Swimming found that only 1% of its athletes identified as Black. About 55% of athletes did not disclose their ethnicity during the survey.
A 2019 report about the organization found that of its 327,337 athletes, 0.6% of men and 0.8% of women are Black. About 34% of athletes did not complete the demographics section of the survey.
Manuel's parents hired a sports psychologist for her when she made the USA Swimming National Team at 15 because they knew the adversity she would face.
“I knew this kid was going to have to deal with a lot,” her mom, Sharron, told Sports Illustrated. “And a lot will be expected.”
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It truly makes me sad to hear stories of Black women deciding not to swim, pursue other sports, or exercise because of their hair. Historically, hair has been so important to the Black community, almost sacred, but I believe there is so much more that makes Black women beautiful besides our hair: our grace, our strength, our resilience. Ever since I was a little girl, my mom would always remind me, “It’s just hair.” That’s not to say that hair isn’t important to me, but it was just a reminder that my hair does not define who I am, but if I did let it define me, it could be a deterrent to me becoming the best version of myself. So, I encourage Black women to embrace and love your hair, but don’t let it stop you from living your life to the fullest!! You are beautiful regardless!! • • Tips for healthy hair while exercising- my weekly routine… • • Monday and Thursday: rinse and apply leave in conditioner Tuesday and Friday: Co wash and apply leave in conditioner Wednesday: Shampoo, Condition and apply leave in conditioner Saturday: WASH DAY WITH ALL THE WORKS! Best tip since my hair gets wet everyday is to Condition, Condition, Condition!
Manuel credits her village, including her coaches, for helping her through the difficulty that comes with being a Black swimmer and for having the important conversations with her.
“I think that's what was so wonderful about my club coach growing up when I was younger. She knew some of the adversity I was going to face in the sport of swimming because of the color of my skin and I think she sought out a mentor for me. And we had honest conversations about what I was going through," she said.
As the first Black woman to win an individual medal in Olympic swimming and a record-breaking athlete, Manuel has often had to be the face of swimming and answer race-related questions during interviews. Her coach, Greg Meehan, said that because of her race, Manuel was “thrust” into a leadership role.
“That role came to her whether she was ready or not, she was undoubtedly the new face of diversity in the sport of swimming. I’m sure it hasn’t been easy. It seems as every interview and conversation about race is directed to Simone. But she has truly embraced the role and her platform for change,” Meehan said.
The 23-year-old said she doesn’t mind answering those questions, though.
“I don't ever feel annoyed about answering the question because I do think that it is important to talk about. I think what becomes exhausting is being the only one, where I feel like questions generally are geared to me to answer,” Manuel said on the Changing the Game podcast according to USA Today.
Despite understanding why those questions are targeted toward her, Manuel said that inclusion in sports shouldn’t just be on the shoulders and minds of Black athletes and should be important to everyone.
“When I'm in a press conference and I'm asked, 'Simone, you champion diversity, inclusion and equality. Why is that important?' I genuinely believe that every other swimmer that is next to me, whether they’re white, Black, Asian, they need to answer that question,” she said. “Because shouldn’t diversity, equality and inclusion be important to all of us? It can’t just be important to Black people.”
While she has always been an advocate for diversity, Manuel is now using her platform to directly confront and uplift social justice issues. She said it has become easier because the conversation was brought to national attention after the killing of George Floyd.
"In the past, I've felt like I had to filter what I say in order to not offend people or put myself in a position where I'd possibly be targeted for what I'm saying," Manuel told CBS. "But now that people are listening, it's a little bit easier for me to stand bold and firm in what I'm saying and not filter how I'm feeling about these situations, because they're important conversations that all of us need to have."
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Days feel heavy and long. It’s hard not to feel or think about the sadness and hatred that weighs heavily on me, my people, and this nation. I’m hurt. I’m tired. We’re hurt. We’re tired. I think it’s always hard to find the right words as they are as scattered and divided as this country. There’s too much to say, but not nearly enough time or energy to express this sad reality. We’re not all in this together!! How far have we really come? Times change. Calendar dates change, but racism still remains. If we want a better country, we ALL must fight for equality and justice. No one escapes the bonds of injustice. No one! It doesn’t matter what side you’re on. We all lose when we fail to address the root of the problem. Here goes: • • • THE PAST STILL LIVES IN THE PRESENT! This is generational. It’s not just about death. It’s about killing our spirits. It’s about killing our dreams. It’s about making us feel less than. It’s about dismissing and ignoring our pain. It’s about silencing our voice. It’s about punishing us when we use our voice and labeling us as “angry” or a “threat” rather than acknowledging we’re exercising our “freedom of speech.” It’s about calling the police and using my skin color against me. It’s about clinching your purse. It’s about believing we don’t belong. It’s about failing to acknowledge and understand my very existence, my pain. It’s about repeating the sins of the past. It’s about thinking that skin color affords ones privileges or denies basic human dignity! It’s about speaking against instead of with our fight for justice. It’s about remaining silent. This needs to be everybody’s fight! • • • The words “freedom”, “justice,” and “equality” are uttered by many, BUT do we really experience it? No! We have yet to experience it collectively as a nation, and we won’t until we all come together and fight for it… until we’re actually “all in this together.” • • • If this makes you uncomfortable, check your privilege. Think of those who lack comfort EVERY????????SINGLE???????? DAY????????
In 2018, Manuel signed her first sponsorship deal with swimwear brand TYR Sport and incorporated an inclusion rider into the contract. The rider, which is the first of its kind, ensures TYR will offer opportunities to underrepresented groups and emphasize diversity in Manuel's creative projects with the brand, according to Swimming World.
“My identity as a citizen, a Black Woman, an athlete and as a creative who wants to use her platform to effect positive change is multi-faceted, and a partnership with TYR represents all of those elements,” she said at the time. “Both TYR and I share a passion for winning and a common vision for growing the sport of swimming by connecting with people and encouraging them to dream beyond traditional assumptions. I am so thrilled to partner with them.”
The athlete, who is the first woman ever to win seven medals in a single world championship, said she has always had these conversations at home with her parents.
“I’ve always had a drive to want to speak out loudly. But I think it’s more accepted to speak your truth now, without people saying, ‘Uh, no-no, that can’t be true, that couldn’t have happened, that can’t be racist.’ I think people are more accepting hearing about it. People have tried to understand more where I’m coming from,” she said.
In January she had a conversation with her mom and questioned how outspoken is too outspoken.
“We were just kind of going over what you want to do and where you want to be,” her mother said. “I just said, ‘Well, Simone, at some point you just have to tell your story.’ All this arose from what was already simmering. Deep down inside, she always knew she was going to have to speak on these issues — not politics, but humanity and equality.”
While Manuel has gotten a great deal of support from her fans, she has also faced criticism for speaking out.
“I’ve gotten a lot of [direct messages] of support,” she said. “But also DMs from people saying they don’t care what I think. There are people who want you to shut up and swim.”
She said the comments about athletes just sticking to sports don’t make sense to her since she is still a person affected by racism.
“Yes, we are athletes. But at the end of the day, we are human. And I’m not going to swim forever. And when that day comes, how are you going to look at me? When I leave the pool, people look at me in specific ways and I’m still affected by systemic racism or racism in general,” she said.
And it hurts because I (and other Black swimmers) can try to get Black children into the water all I want, but I can’t control the people they may run into that may forever taint their experience of wanting to ever swim again or enjoy the water. This is traumatic tbh.
— Simone Manuel (@swimone) July 20, 2020
Manuel said the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics was bittersweet because while she has worked hard and trained for the upcoming games, there are other things that need attention.
“I knew that swimming was one day going to come back, sports were one day going to come back, but what was most important was continuing to take care of our community and our world, especially because of the effects of coronavirus and now the unfortunate events revolving around social justice," she said.