By Mike Watkins//Correspondent | Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Before the start of the 100 freestyle at last weekend’s NCAA Division I Women’s Championships, Natalie Hinds’ mom relayed something to her that she hadn't even realized.
“She mentioned to me that there were three African-American swimmers in the final, and it was a big deal,” Hinds said. “I was so focused on my race that I didn't really even notice. It wasn't until later that it hit me.”
What hit Hinds – and the rest of the swimming world – was that, at the conclusion of the sprint, three young women African- American finished the race 1-2-3, the first time that had ever happened, man or woman. Not at NCAAs, not at Nationals, not at Olympic Trials.
And while the feat didn't go unnoticed by everyone involved with swimming, for Simone Manuel (first), Lia Neal (second) and Hinds (third), the fact that three black women stood on the championship podium was initially secondary to the end result.
Manuel, a freshman at Stanford, set an American, US Open and NCAA Championship record (46.09) and Hinds, a junior, set a new school record for the University of Florida. Neal, a sophomore also at Stanford, set a new personal best time.
“It all didn't register for me until we had left the pool, and I had some time to think about it,” Manuel said. “Even with the three of us standing side-by-side on the awards podium, it didn't occur to me that we were three African-American swimmers. To me, we were just three really good, fast swimmers. Our race didn't even enter my mind.”
That wasn't the case elsewhere. The fact spread like wildfire throughout social media, with a variety of congratulations and comments all over Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Hinds said she has heard from a plethora of people, both in and out of the sport, who see the tremendous accomplishment of these young women in a sport still dominated by Caucasians.
Among the messages was a note from Maritza (Correia) McClendon, the first black woman to break an American record, and later, the first to earn a spot on an Olympic swim team. At the 2004 Olympics, she added first black woman to win an Olympic medal (silver in the 400 freestyle relay) to her resume and went on to win four gold medals at the 2005 World University Games.
For McClendon, seeing three women of color winning in swimming confirms that the move toward making the sport more diverse is having a measurable impact.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get to see a 1-2-3 finish like this,” McClendon said. “I’m so proudof these ladies for their individual accomplishments, and I know they will continue to make waves in our sport.
“This feat confirms the fact that more minorities are getting involved with swimming and excelling at higher levels. I look forward to Olympic Trials next year. Not only will these ladies continue to do special things, but they will motivate the next generation of minority swimmers to do even greater things.”
The feat also was recognized by African-American swimming star Cullen Jones, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, who believes this precedent-setting event continues to dispel myths and misconceptions about African-Americans and other minorities in the sport just as his results have.
“Congratulations to all three of these ladies; this is a great achievement,” he said. “In a culture that still believes that swimming is something ‘We don't do,’ this shows the perseverance and dedication that these ladies have put forth to all be on the podium. My hope is that this starts to change our culture’s perception and is only the beginning.”
Hinds said she was a bit surprised to receive so many accolades and well wishes doing something she loves and has been doing since she was 4.
For her, it has never been about gender or race.
It’s always been about giving it all she has to be the best swimmer she can be.
“It’s amazing; so many messages from so many people, a lot of whom I don’t know but they are certainly proud of what we did,” Hinds said. “I don’t mean to downplay what happened at all, but for me and I imagine for Simone and Lia, it was largely about our performances and times than anything else.”
Manuel agrees, adding that when she was growing up in the sport, she was inspired by McClendon’s accomplishments but she was equally inspired by all of the swimmers she looked up to – regardless of race or gender.
She said she hopes her achievements will continue to motivate more and more minorities and young women to get in the pool.
And even if they never make a college, national or Olympic team, she hopes they will learn to swim for safety reasons as well as to experience the joy the sport continues to give her.
“This is an important step for the sport, and moving forward, I want to continue to be a great representative for swimming as well as minorities and women,” said Manuel, who will compete in both the 50 and 100 freestyle events for the United States this summer at the FINA World Championships in Russia.
“But I try not to get too caught up in this one outcome because we still have a lot more that needs to be accomplished. I’m ready for the day when we can go out and race not as black or white swimmers but as human beings. I think we’re getting closer and closer to this.”