Black History Month: Multicultural Hero Simone Manuel

Black History Month: Multicultural Hero Simone Manuel

By Rhonda Marable//USA Swimming Multicultural Public Relations Manager  | Monday, October 6, 2014

“Working hard is not enough – you have to work harder than you think you are…”

There are some household names in the sport of swimming when it comes to representatives of diversity and inclusion. Cullen Jones and Martiza Correia have paved the way for a new crop of diverse young swim stars, few more prolific in their quest for swimming greatness than world champion and American record holder Simone Manuel.

The First Colony Swim Team product has been wreaking havoc in the pool, most recently taking home a gold and silver medal at the 2014 Philips 66 Nationals in the 50 and 100 meter freestyle respectively. Her performance earned her a place on the 2014 Pan Pacs team where she took third in the 100m free and fourth in the 50m free.

Beyond her accomplishments in the pool, which have culminated in her scholarship and acceptance to Stanford University, Simone has been active on the “dry side” of USA Swimming by serving as the athlete representative for the 2013 Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

“I want to increase awareness that swimming is an option for black people,” Simone said. “It seems cliché but black people don’t just jump in the pool. There’s such a stereotype and you don’t see a lot of us swimming. I’m hoping to lead by example.”

Much of the work done to diversify the sport of swimming has focused on doing exactly that. Making athletes like Simone, Cullen, and Lia Neal more visible can hopefully help break these stereotypes. The other piece of the pie is the ever-elusive quest for inclusion; something that Simone has also had some experience with.

“I think around the age of 12, I was doing really well and my coach decided to move me into a higher training group based on my performance. I was excited, but I wasn’t prepared for the challenges that resulted from the move. It was a challenging transition because I wanted to be like every other kid, but the reality was, I had an adjustment period to go through. It wasn’t always comfortable or easy. She recalls, “I wasn’t having fun anymore."

"The early struggles I went through as a 12 year-old and even as a 5 year-old in recreational league have helped me grow and formed who I am today. I believe I am a better person because of the experiences that I have had… the good and the bad.”

When it comes to diversity and inclusion, race often takes the forefront in conversation. As Simone has experienced and likely others, opportunities to be more inclusive can run the gamut and age as much as gender, language, and ethnicity are things to be aware of. Fortunately for Simone, she had her family to keep her motivated on those days when she would come home from practice crying.

“There were good days and not so good days I believe, mostly because I was trying to find my place. My family made it better. My mom would tell me it was ok to cry but not let my feelings defeat me,” said Simone. “I need to pursue my dreams and not let the feelings of others stop me. I think it was a mixture of everything. I felt some discomfort that I was swimming in the first place because of stereotypes. There was definitely an exclusion factor,” she admitted.

The trials that Simone faced at such a young age in the sport were things that could have pushed her to pack up her suit and goggles and call it quits. Without the support of her family and the backing of her then coach, Allison Beebe, that might have been true. One other thing that helped Simone stay in the sport was her fateful acceptance into the USA Swimming’s Diversity Select Camp in 2010.

“My coach is the one who recommended me. She said ‘I have an application for you to fill out’ and I hadn’t heard of the Diversity Select Camp before. It was at this camp that I met people in the sport who were a minority like me, who’d also had feelings of being excluded. I saw that it wasn’t just me and they were such amazing people with different stories and I became really close friends with them. I cried on the last day because I didn’t want to leave and I didn’t know when I’d see them again. That was my favorite camp I’ve ever been to,” she said, the smile evident in her voice.

As part of a small group of black swimmers on the team and other ethnic groups represented, Simone’s experience was invaluable to her. Knowing that she wasn’t alone was a motivator and something that reinvigorated her. It helped her have fun again. The sport continues to forge a path to being more diverse and inclusive and Simone’s experiences and insights can serve as an example to people of all races but especially for those minorities who sometimes are those “only ones” facing similar stereotypes. At the end of the day, Simone’s advice to getting to the elite level is something all swimmers can heed.

“Have fun, number one and love what you’re doing. To get to the elite level working hard isn’t enough, you have to work harder than you think you are most of the time. It’s important to remember though that you have to work hard and do the best that you can do. You’re swimming for you. When you get on the block and are in your lane, you need to do your best. The result might be that you beat the person next to you but no matter what, you should be satisfied with what you did. You can learn from every situation in the sport, win or lose, and I think that’s what’s driven me – doing my best.”

You can follow Simone Manuel on Twitter @simone_manuel and be sure to follow her progress with the rest of the Stanford Cardinal here.

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