By By Chase McFadden//Contributor | Wednesday, November 16, 2016
That reaction? The iconic image that’ll grace every Olympics telecast from now until forever? The one that appears to be equal parts astonishment and unbridled joy? It might not be quite what you think.
The look on the face of Simone Manuel in that moment after she turns to gaze up at the results of the women’s 100 meter freestyle isn’t complete surprise at a gold-medal finish; she believed something amazing was destined to happen going into that final.That look is recognition that dreaming big is the only way to dream.
“The greatest quality I have is that I think outside the box and just go for anything and everything I think I can achieve – and sometimes think I can’t achieve – because setting that bar high has gotten me to reach goals I never really thought were possible,” Manuel explained.
“It’s kind of counterintuitive, but I dream big and work hard.”
That lofty bar and years of grind put Manuel in position to do something special in Rio.
“I was pretty confident going into the race,” said the American sprinter of the final. “I knew that I was going to swim well based on how I’d swam in prelims, and I’d made some mistakes in the semifinal, so I was looking forward to swimming the 100 free one more time and hopefully fixing those technical aspects I knew I could fix.
“On top of that, the moment I walked into the warm-up pool, I just had this feeling that I was going to do something pretty great. My heart rate was high, I was super excited, but at the same time I was focused and calm. And I wasn’t nervous, and I’m usually really nervous before my races, but in this instance I wasn’t nervous at all.”Do something pretty great, indeed.
“I can only really remember the first 75. The last 25 I don’t remember anything other than the last 15 meters I told myself to put my head down and just charge to the wall,” the 20-year-old Texan described of the 52.70 seconds between leaving the blocks and touching the wall, a new Olympic record. “The last 50 I didn’t see anybody, I didn’t know where anybody was, I didn’t know where I was in relation to anybody else. I think that’s why I was a little shocked when I turned around because sometimes when you’re swimming you can touch the wall and see that you out-touched the person next to you, but I had no idea.
“I knew I was going to swim well because I’d worked hard these past four years, improved my swimming and made changes to get better, but that reaction is just the emotions of things you've dreamed about actually coming true, seeing your hard work pay off, it all coming to fruition.”
Beyond the tangible heft of her feat – 500 grams of medal – Manuel’s victory was also weighty due to the historical significance of her accomplishment: she became the first African-American female swimmer to win an individual gold medal representing the United States. She was also the first American woman since 1984 to win Olympic gold in the 100m freestyle.
How has she learned to balance the enormity of what her swim means for a race with what it means for her individually as a competitor? Good question.
“I have not figured out how to balance those two,” she said, laughing. “I’m only 20-years-old, it might take me a while.
“I recognize the importance of what happened and what I’d done, and hopefully that helps catapult more minorities into the sport and lets them realize that they can do the same thing. But at the same time, it’s what I chose to do, it’s what I love to do. Color comes with the territory of what I’ve accomplished, but I would like to be known as simply a great sprinter – a great American sprinter – because I represent a lot more than just my race. I represent sprinters and America and women.
“It make me feel grateful and blessed just to be in this position as that person who made history,” Manuel continued. “I know there are so many people before me who were history makers in the sport of swimming. They were an inspiration to me, and for me to build on their successes is cool, but I’m also just humbled by the fact that I could be that person.
“I’m just hoping that what I’ve done can grow the sport and give minorities the option to decide if they want to swim and get in the water and learn how to swim and be safe around the water. Hopefully it becomes the norm where there are more African-Americans in the sport of swimming and they’re known as great sprinters, backstrokers, breaststrokers – just great swimmers in the sport.”
USA Swimming is re-celebrating the top moments from the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Check back onsftest.usaswimming.org every few days for new profile on the the swimmers who made those moments happen. Also, follow us on Facebook and Twitter @USASwimming for more on our success in Rio.