Simone Manuel swam her way to a historic victory in Rio on Thursday, holding off world record holder Cate Campbell of Australia to grab 100 meter freestyle gold in a tie with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak.
Manuel clocked in at a stunning 52.70 seconds. It was a new Olympic record.
It was even more significant than that, though: Manuel became the first female African-American swimmer to win gold in an individual event.
“This medal is not just for me,” she said after the race. “It’s for some of the African-Americans who have been before me and been inspirations.”
“I hope I can be an inspiration for others. This medal is for the people who come behind me and get into the sport.”
It is an honor to represent the USA! God is working in me! I am so blessed and grateful. Thank you all so much for your support.
Simone Manuel (@simone_manuel) August 12, 2016
Simone’s victory marks an important milestone. She’s one of just a few African Americans who have progressed to the Olympic level with none making it that far as recently as twenty years ago.
It wasn’t until the year 2000 that a black swimmer made the U.S. Olympic team when Anthony Ervin joined the squad, according to USA Swimming. He took home two gold medals in Sydney that year. It would be another four years before a black woman made it, in Athens in 2004, when Maritza Correia joined the team.
Since then, a few others have risen to the top, including Lia Neal (who won bronze in the women’s 400 meter freestyle relay in 2012) and Cullen Jones.
In 2008, Jones won gold as part of the 4 x 100 meter freestyle relay for the U.S. He was among the athletes congratulating Manuel on Thursday.
The reasons for the disappointing diversity in the pool date back several decades into America’s past, and reflect the historic lack of opportunity for members of the African-American community.
Jeff Wiltse, the author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America spoke to NPR a number of years ago about the issue.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he said, cities across the northern U.S. “built lots of pools in poor, immigrant, working-class-white neighborhoods, but conspicuously avoided building pools in neighborhoods inhabited predominately by black Americans.”
The 1920s and 1930s saw an explosion of pool construction across the country, he added. Thousands of massive leisure complexes opened up. At that time, though, cities started racially segregating pools in the north and, later, nationwide. Black swimmers got smaller indoor pools if they were lucky.
Violence and intimidation kept African Americans out of “white” pools where they weren’t officially segregated. When pools were eventually desegregated in the 1940s and 1950s, he says, overall attendance went down as whites increasingly flocked to private pools.
That troubling history has led to an oft-cited statistic from USA Swimming, based on studies conducted by their researchers and others from the University of Memphis, that some 70 percent of black people can’t swim. Incidents of drowning are much higher among young people in the community, too, those researchers say.
Manuel’s milestone will hopefully inspire a new generation to take those first few strokes in the pool, and kick start more swimming lessons and clubs across the country.
Manuel has made the most of her historic moment too.
She grasped the spotlight Thursday and refocussed it on a pressing issue for the black community in the U.S., her mention of “some of the issues with police brutality” a strong nod towards the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I think that this win helps bring hope and change to some of the issues that are going on in the world” she said.
While acknowledging the importance of her medal, she said that she hoped enough people would follow in her footsteps that it won’t be such a talking point in years to come. “I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone, the black swimmer,'” she said.
“The title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I’m not supposed to be able to break records and that’s not true. I work just as hard as anybody else. I want to win just like everybody else.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting.