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History Maker: Olympic champion Simone Manuel
By Greg Bach
Growing up, Simone Manuel couldn’t wait to head over to the pool for swimming practice.
There were always new games to play, friends to see and a lot of fun to be had.
“It’s what I called my ‘happy place,’” says Manuel, who last summer in Rio became the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming medal in the Olympics when she captured gold in the 100-meter freestyle.
And she did it in epic style too, setting an Olympic and American record in the process.
“The water is just where I’ve always felt the most comfortable,” she says.
BATH TIME A FAVORITE TIME
Born in Sugar Land, Texas, it was evident early on that the water held special appeal to Manuel.
“I’ve always loved the water,” she says. “My mom always tells me that bath time was my favorite time.”
Her two older brothers competed in summer league events and at age 4 she announced to the family that she wanted to be on the swim team, too.
So her mom enrolled her in swim lessons.
And Manuel turned out to be a fast learner.
“On the second day I swam across the pool,” Manuel says. “So I don’t know if there ever was a specific time where I fell in love with the water. I was probably born that way.”
She enjoyed – and flourished – in the sport throughout her childhood.
But she never felt the weight of heavy expectations or pressure from her parents to be the first one to touch the wall in races.
“My parents weren’t high pressure at all and they still aren’t,” Manuel says. “If I felt like talking about my race they would talk about it and if I didn’t we wouldn’t.”
It was a formula that worked well in the household.
“I’m a person where once I’m done with swimming I leave it at the pool and I move on to the next thing and my parents were kind of that way, too,” she says. “Swimming doesn’t define me and there are so many other aspects to my life that are really important and that make me the person that I am today.”
MAKE A SPLASH
Manuel is thankful for the opportunity she had to learn how to swim at a young age.
And she loves being a part of the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash efforts, because it’s saving lives.
Since 2007 Make a Splash has given nearly 5 million children the gift of free or low-cost swim lessons. Make a Splash works to provide every child in America with the opportunity to learn to swim – regardless of race, gender or financial circumstances.
“The work I’m doing with Make a Splash is so important to me,” Manuel says. “I’ve been told that the success that I’ve had at the Olympics has inspired people to want to learn how to swim and get in the water and I think that’s pretty cool that my swimming can do that.”
Because those swim lessons can save lives.
A lot of them.
Drownings occur every day across the country and the numbers are startling: 70 percent of African American children cannot swim; 60 percent of Latino children cannot swim; 40 percent of Caucasian children cannot swim; and children are only 13 percent likely to learn to swim if their parents don’t know how to swim.
“I really enjoy the interaction with the children because they are so excited to get in the pool and learn how to swim,” Manuel says. “Learning how to swim is a life-saving skill, but it’s also fun and something that everyone should be able to enjoy.”
She’s enjoyed it nearly her entire life and now she’s impacting young lives through the sport, and helping to save lives, too.
“That’s where it all started for me, just getting swim lessons and having fun around the water,” Manuel says. “Not everybody will pursue it and decide to take swimming as their athletic endeavor but the most important thing is learning how to be safer around the water.”
She excelled on the basketball courts and soccer fields of her youth, and the lessons learned all the way through her collegiate playing days are used often in the high-pressure world of live television
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