By Mike Watkins//Correspondent | Thursday, February 25, 2016
Last March at NCAA Championships, Simone Manuel stood atop the podium flanked by Lia Neal and Natalie Hinds after the final of the 100 freestyle.
Together, they celebrated not only their individual triumphs but also the first time three African-American swimmers took the top three spots in a swimming event.
“It was definitely a milestone – something we could all be proud of,” she said. “But in all honesty, what we accomplished didn’t really hit me until weeks later. When it did, it became really clear to me how important it was in a sport like swimming. It’s something I’m very proud of.”
This year, however, Manuel won’t get the chance to repeat this tremendous feat because she won’t be competing at NCAAs. In fact, she hasn’t been competing for the Stanford Cardinal women at all this season.
To focus mentally and physically on being in the best position possible this summer at Olympic Trials in Omaha, Manuel made the decision – with the support of her coaches, family and teammates – to redshirt this year.
While she’s missed traveling with her teammates to away dual meets, Manuel said she’s remained close to everyone on the team, going to team dinners and supporting them from the deck during home meets.
Ultimately, she said she knows she’s making a temporary sacrifice so that she can fulfill a dream she’s had since she first started swimming summer league as a 5-year-old.
“It was definitely a tough decision (to redshirt), but not competing (for Stanford) has really helped me with my training,” said Manuel, a member of the 2013 and 2015 World Championship teams. “In addition to reducing the amount of travel I would make if I were competing – which has allowed me to not miss any training – I am also able to train more long course, and that will definitely make a difference.
“I’m still taking classes and training with the team, so I’m able to stay involved and that has helped make me feel a part of the team even when I’m not competing. But I definitely miss it.”
Along with her Stanford teammates, Manuel also trains with post-college grads (and Stanford alums) Maya DiRado and Felicia Lee.
Despite being just a sophomore, Manuel has taken a very mature attitude toward her swimming – and she credits her family for giving her the confidence to make the tough, necessary decisions.
“My parents always encouraged us (she and her two older brothers) to think for ourselves and make our own decisions,” she said. “I was also always put in swim groups with older swimmers including my brothers when I was younger, and that helped make me more decisive and mature.
“They taught us some very valuable life lessons, and they always told us whatever decision we made, they would support us. When you have that kind of support, it’s easy not to second-guess yourself.”
That support combined with undeniable talent and determination has elevated Manuel among the fastest female sprinters in the world – and the fastest in the United States.
Because of that maturity she possesses, Manuel said she purposely doesn’t think much about the responsibility and pressure that comes with such high expectations.
The only expectations that really matter to her are the ones she and her support system have.
Everything else is just white noise.
“If you let the noise in, you can’t stay mentally focused, and to compete at this level and be successful, you have to be able to block it out,” said Manuel, a science technology in society major with an emphasis in communication and media at Stanford.
“If you don’t, you welcome the opportunity for your mentality to break down. I prefer to get in the pool and work hard, improve on the details of my race and focus on what I want to accomplish.”
With her first Olympic Trials behind her (she competed in 2012 as a 15-year-old high school sophomore), Manuel said the international racing experience she’s gained over the past couple of years has proven invaluable as she’s grown as a competitor.
She knows that experience will come in handy not only at Trials this summer in Omaha but also at the Olympics should she fulfill her destiny and make the Olympic team.
Manuel said she knows the United States women sprinters have had a tough time against international competitors over the past few years.
But with the up-and-coming talent that she expects to shine at Trials, she said she is confident the U.S. women are definitely within striking distance of recent powerhouses Australia and the Netherlands.
“I was able to watch some of the best European sprinters at Duel in the Pool last December, and getting more and more opportunities to race against them helps me get better,” she said. “I honestly don’t believe they’re doing anything different than we are, but I analyzed their stroke and compared it to mine to see if there are some things I can change.
“I also watched how many strokes they took per 50 meters and some other things. But I have infinite trust in my coaches and my training that they are preparing me to be right there with them.”
And when Trials arrive in a few months, Manuel said she knows this time she won’t allow the enormity of the event to get the best of her.
She’s far from being that eager but inexperienced 15-year-old who let the atmosphere and her nerves keep her from enjoying the experience and realizing her Olympic dream.
She’s now a trailblazer at just 19 years old – and she’s ready to make a bigger mark on the swimming world for the United States as well as for African-American swimmers.
“I remember during my junior year of high school I was doing some dryland work with my coach – jumping on boxes – and someone asked what sport I did. When I said swimming, he asked why I wasn’t doing track or something like that, and I replied because swimming is my sport,” said Manuel, who is planning to rejoin her Stanford teammates next fall.
“My older brothers were really good swimmers who chose to focus on basketball, but swimming has always been my choice. I often feel like race is made into too much of an issue in sports, especially sports like swimming which have traditionally been white sports. I want young people – no matter what race they are – to do whatever they want to do to the best of their ability because that’s what I’ve always been encouraged to do.”