By Mike Watkins//Contributor | Thursday, June 21, 2018
Don’t get her wrong – Simone Manuel loves feeling a medal around her neck and standing on the podium to revel in the playing of the American National Anthem as much as anyone.
She must. Her collection of international hardware from being one of the fastest swimmers in the world continues to grow each year. That’s a lot of medals and anthems.
Within the past two years, she’s added seven of the gold kind from the Olympics and World Championships. She earned five of them last summer at Worlds in Budapest – a feat surpassed only by Caeleb Dressell (7) but equaled by former Stanford teammate and new professional training partner Katie Ledecky.
But for Manuel – the American record holder in both the 50 and 100 freestyles – the real tell that alerts her to how she’s swimming is her own assessment.
If she knows she’s swimming fast and still loves the sport – as she is right now – then everything else is ancillary.
She knows that swimming fast and happy will bring her the accolades and also give her peace of mind in knowing she’s doing the best she can.
“The only real expectations that matter to me are the ones I have of and for myself,” said Manuel, who capped her NCAA career this past March with titles in the 50 and 100 freestyles – her third in both. She redshirted in 2016 to focus on the Olympics or it probably would have been four straight titles in both.
“I know if I allow what other people want of and expect from me to matter, then I’m not swimming because I love it anymore. Right now, I’m swimming because I still love it, and I know I have much more to accomplish.”
Even though she won’t yet officially graduate with her degree in Communications with a minor in African-American studies, Manuel walked with her classmates last weekend at graduation.
With her NCAA eligibility complete, she recently moved out of the dorms and into her own place in Palo Alto so she can finish her schoolwork and focus on her life as a professional.
Along with the ability to focus on training and getting faster, Manuel said she’s also looking forward to moving into the small post-graduate training group at Stanford (she, Ledecky and fellow U.S. National teammate Lia Neal) as well as planning and cooking her own meals outside of dormitory food.
As far as finding ways to get faster – she’s already won the 100 freestyle at the last two biggest meets in the world, although the world record has eluded her – Manuel said she and her coach, Greg Meehan, are using technology (video analysis) and all the best training methods to help her find her next gear.
And if you watched her in the 100 free event finals at the Olympics and World Championships, you know that Manuel saves her best – and fastest – races for when they matter most.
“I hate to lose; I’ve always hated to lose,” said Manuel, who admits she was always a fast swimmer, even as a child, but wasn’t always the best.
“It’s what drives me to always want to be faster, to be better. I think it all stems back to my older brothers who swam. I could never beat them, and that made me want to beat them even more.”
And while she admits she still hasn’t beaten them – although it’s been years since they last raced – it’s incidental.
Lately, she’s been beating everyone else in the races that matter most.
With much on the line at Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships this summer – spots on the 2018 Pan Pacific Championship and 2019 World Championship teams – Manuel knows she has to keep the pressure on her opponents to keep getting better and faster herself.
“Like I said, I really don’t care what others say or think about me; only I can determine what I do and what I accomplish,” said Manuel, who became the first U.S. woman to win gold in the 100 free at the Olympics since 1984 and the first African-American women to win individual Olympic gold.
“My goal is always to improve myself and go out and race. When I step on the blocks, I always know I have a chance to win. If you don’t believe you can win, you’ve already lost, and I refuse to think that way – in swimming and in life.”
Just 21 (22 in August), Manuel said she would like to continue swimming competitively until the 2028 Summer Olympics, when they return to U.S. soil for the first time since 1996.
She’ll be 31 then – almost 32 – but because of the events she swims, she knows her body and mind can stay fresh with proper training and recovery.
It’s something Dara Torres proved in 2008 at age 41 when she not only made the Olympic team in the 50 and 100 (she later withdrew to focus on the 50), but won silver and came within one hundredth of a second of winning gold in Beijing.
“I definitely want to swim through 2024, but it would be wonderful to be able to swim at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles,” Manuel said. “In my opinion, there would be no other better way to retire from the sport than that.“Sprinters have a long lifespan, so I think I can do it, but there are so many other things that will happen over the next 10 years, so who knows. But it would definitely be a dream come true for me.”