Simone Manuel first female African-American swimmer to win individual Olympic medal

ByABC News
August 12, 2016, 12:10 AM

— -- RIO DE JANEIRO -- Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic medal in swimming Thursday night, tying for gold in the 100-meter freestyle with Penny Oleksiak of Canada.

Manuel and Oleksiak both touched the wall in 52.70 seconds, breaking the Olympic record by one-hundredth of a second. Sweden's Sarah Sjostrom took the bronze in 52.99.

Manuel leaned her head into her hands and cried when she recognized her historic achievement in a sport that still has few African-Americans.

"I'm just so blessed to have a gold medal," Manuel, 20, told NBC after the race. "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. ... 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."

Anthony Ervin is the only African-American male to win an individual Olympic gold in swimming. He tied for first in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2000 Olympics and is on the team again in Rio.

Manuel, meanwhile, also became the first American to win gold in the women's 100 freestyle since 1984, when Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer shared first place.

Manuel had to rally to get there.

She was third at the halfway mark but surged past Australian Cate Campbell, who was on pace to take her world record even lower when she made the turn out front, with little sister Bronte right behind. But the Australian siblings, who teamed up to lead their country to gold in the 4x100 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 -- her fingernails painted red, white and blue -- who touched at the same time as 16-year-old Oleksiak, the youngest swimmer in the field.

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.

"It's been a long journey, and I'm super excited with where it has brought me," she said.

Manuel's victory took on added significance in a sport that still has few people of color, especially in light of the racial divide in the United States. She mentioned "some of the issues with police brutality."

"I think that this win helps bring hope and change to some of the issues that are going on in the world, but I mean, I went out there and swam as fast as I could, and my color just comes with the territory," Manuel said.

Until now, Cullen Jones had been the face of swimming for minorities in America, having won two golds and two silvers at the previous two Olympics. But Jones failed to make the U.S. team this year in what could have been his final attempt.

Manuel's teammate Lia Neal earned silver on the 4x100 free relay in Rio and bronze on the same relay four years ago in London. Maritza Correia won silver on the same relay at the 2004 Athens Games.

Manuel singled out Jones, Neal and Correia for blazing a path.

Neal pumped up Manuel before the night-time finals by singing and dancing together.

"That helped keep the nerves off me," Manuel said. "After the race, I gave her a big hug and I cried and I told her, 'Thank you for everything you've done for me.' She's a huge part of my successes."

Manuel, who attends Stanford and has a brother who played basketball at SMU, looks forward to a time when there is greater diversity in the pool.

"I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it's not 'Simone, the black swimmer,'" she said, "because the title 'black swimmer' makes it seem like I'm not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I'm not supposed to be able to break records, and that's not true because I work just as hard as anybody else. I want to win just like everybody else."

And Manuel hopes she can just be a swimmer and a champion without her race being a factor.

"That's something I definitely struggled with a lot," she said. "Just coming into this race, I kind of tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me just being in this position. I do hope that kind of goes away."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.