Simone Manuel qualifies for Tokyo Olympics with 50-meter freestyle win

"When I touched the wall, I was literally like, 'Please, God, please!'" said the 2016 gold medalist

Simone Manuel is headed to the summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan after winning the 50-meter freestyle at the U.S Olympic Team Trials in Omaha Sunday night. 

“When I touched the wall, I was literally like, ‘Please, God, please!'” she said.

Manuel, 24, won by 0.01 seconds, one-hundredth of a second faster than Abbey Weitzeil, who qualified second, as reported by ESPN. Manuel finished ninth in the 100-meter freestyle on Thursday, and later disclosed at a news conference her months-long struggle with “overtraining syndrome,” which required her to take a three-week break from preparing for the Olympics earlier this year.

She called the diagnosis her “biggest fight,” and detailed symptoms that included muscle fatigue, shortness of breath, and an elevated heart rate. The symptoms arose in January and by March, her condition worsened — leading her to spiral into depression.

“This year has been difficult, especially the last couple months,” Manuel said. “But before I dove in, I felt like it was my moment. And I’m so thankful for the blessings that God has given me.”

Manuel’s remarkable comeback Sunday night saw her emerge victorious in 24.29 seconds, qualifying her for her second U.S. Olympic team. It is her fastest time since the 2019 World Championships, where she was the gold medalist with a time of 24.05 seconds.

“Today may have been the longest day of my life,” Manuel said Sunday. “That 50 may have been the longest 50 of my life. I’m just glad to have it over.”

“I told her before we walked out, ‘We’re coming out together,'” Weitzeil said. “During the race, I saw her right there. I was like, ‘Yes! Let’s go! C’mon!’ That’s what I was thinking the whole time.”

Manuel and Weitzeil both represented the U.S. in this event in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and will do so again in Tokyo. After the race on Sunday, Weitzeil bear-hugged Manuel. 

“I’m just so happy I accomplished part of my goal,” said Manuel, a four-time medalist in Rio. “I can walk away with my head held high.”

As previously reported by theGrio, Manuel became the first Black American woman to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics in Rio five years ago, when she tied Canada’s Penny Oleksiak. At the time, Manuel was also on the first-ever Olympic USA Women’s swim team to have two Black Americans compete, USA Today reported.

“The title of Black swimmer suggests that I am not supposed to win golds or break records, but that’s not true because I train hard and want to win just like everyone else,” she previously said while speaking about the difficulties she faces as a champion.

“It is something I’ve definitely struggled with a lot,” Manuel continued. “Coming into the race I tried to take weight of the Black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not ‘Simone the Black swimmer.’”

2021 U.S. Olympic Trials - Swimming - Day 8
Simone Manuel of the United States reacts after competing in the women’s 50m freestyle final on June 20, 2021, in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

After skipping training in March and April due to her health issues, Manuel said her return this past week “was an uphill climb.”

“Once I got back in the water, some days were good, some days weren’t great. I could go on and on, but to sit here and even do what I did and to be at this meet is something that I can’t take lightly.”

Her grueling training made the victory Sunday worth the strain she put on her body. 

“I’m so proud of Simone and how she has handled herself, not just this week but over the last several months, really just the last year,” said five-time gold medalist Katie Ledecky, Manuel’s training partner during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prior to Sunday night’s win, Manuel reacted to Olympic swimming icon Michael Phelps reportedly saying that the U.S. needs her on the team not only for her talent, but also for her leadership skills.

“I desperately want to be on the team. I feel like I have so much to give this sport, not just in the pool but out of the pool,” Manuel said, as reported by NBC News. “I just want to see whatever I‘ve got. I want to walk away with my head held high at the end of this meet. Hopefully, it gets me a ticket to Tokyo, but if it doesn’t, I’m proud of myself.”

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