Simone Manuel reflects on large pizzas, Beyoncé Snaps and fast finishes as Stanford career closes

In her last college meet, Simone Manuel will be looking to propel Stanford to its second straight national title. Courtesy Carl Solder Photography

On the one hand, Simone Manuel wants to savor the weekend.

After all, it's the last time Manuel, who dazzled us at the Rio Olympics by becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming medal, will compete for Stanford. The Cardinal are heavily favored to repeat as NCAA national champions in Columbus, Ohio.

And yet ...

"I'm someone who puts a lot of pressure on myself anyway, and I don't want to be thinking, 'It's the last time, so it has to be perfect,'" the 21-year-old senior says. "If I think that way, it puts way more pressure on me.''

If performing when stakes are high bothers Manuel, that's not reflected in her results. Think back to the 2016 Olympics, her face illuminating upon spying the clock after she set American and Olympic records in the 100-meter freestyle and shared gold with Canadian Penny Oleksiak.

Sure, seeing the Winter Games on social media -- Manuel confesses she didn't have much time to tune in -- did bring back memories and, "it helps me look forward to going again and doing the same thing in 2020," she says.

But for this weekend (the championships start Wednesday and run through Saturday) she's all about college competition, where success has come both individually and as part of a team that includes the other face of American swimming, sophomore Katie Ledecky.

"I don't think there's anyone else you want in that big moment other than Simone." Greg Meehan

A year ago, Manuel won NCAA titles in the 50 and 100 free and two relays as part of Stanford's first national championship team since 1998. With a résumé so stacked, it's easy to wonder why Manuel didn't take a victory lap this season, particularly after a hip injury sidelined her nearly six months.

She never even thought about it.

"I get a lot out of college swimming," the 14-time All-American says. "When you're on a college team, you're immersed with your teammates, you train with them, you try to score points for yourself but also for them. It's a close-knit community and it's something I'm proud to be a part of. It was kind of easy going back to the college atmosphere where I could go to dual meets and swim at Pac-12s and have 21 girls cheering for me. It's a different atmosphere that I wasn't ready to leave."

Manuel didn't compete for her high school team in Sugar Land, Texas, and she says Team USA offered a different dynamic than college, where togetherness is constant, from the grind of practice to team breakfasts to competition to the less regimented stuff like late-night food runs.

"Are you hungry?" is an after-hours text teammate Katie Drabot is never surprised to receive from Manuel.

"I was hoping you'd ask," Drabot replies.

Put her down for pizza, a large, double-layer crust with all the toppings.

"I have to explain, I can eat it all myself," Manuel says.

Not that she minds being vocal. She's a boisterous sort of captain who breaks into song with regularity.

"She likes to belt it out," Drabot, a sophomore, says. "On Snapchat, she's not afraid to go on a rant or put out a minutelong sing of her belting out a song of someone she loves."

Beyoncé, usually, or sometimes Mariah Carey.

Manuel credits the bonds out of the pool for sustaining her during a season that didn't start as she envisioned, especially after a brilliant summer at the world championships. Manuel snagged six medals, including a gold in the 100 free after she defeated reigning world record-holder Sarah Sjöström.

But hip pain set in shortly afterward.

Doctors conflicted on the cause, but finally the consensus was that Manuel suffered from tendinitis. Given how integral her kick is to her speed, that was a blow. But focusing on her upper body wasn't such a bad idea to improve her swimming, Cardinal coach Greg Meehan says.

"This was an opportunity for her to get better with her upper-body strength, which was already off the charts," he says. "She continued to make that strength even better."

While she wasn't competing, Manuel wore a pull buoy between her thighs that allowed her to focus on her pull in a normal body position without worrying about her kick.

"There was only one meet that I didn't travel to," she says. "The coaches wanted me to have the same routine. It was pretty much swim, school, get better, shop. Nothing really changed for me."

Manuel won the 200 free and anchored the winning 400 free relay in her first meet back on Jan. 19 against Arizona.

And yet ...

"It felt terrible," she says, laughing. "Every swimmer would probably say that with their first competition back. That's why you race. You need that muscle memory. You practice a lot but racing it a totally different animal."

"Her legs felt like October in January," Meehan says. "That's the hard part. By then, the rest of the squad feels pretty good. She was introducing good kicking at that point. It's the idea that you have to get your sea legs almost."

Manuel felt terrific at last month's Pac-12 championships, avenging an earlier defeat to Cal's Abbey Weitzeil, also a Rio medalist, in the 50 free by winning her second straight conference title. In the final event, Weitzeil held a lead in the anchor leg of the 400 individual medley relay, but Manuel motored in the final 25 yards to touch the wall first.

"This means a lot," she says. "I'm trying to soak it all in, do well for the team and just enjoy the experience I've had with Stanford swimming."

In fact, the whole experience in Palo Alto has been charmed. From the go, Manuel knew it was the only school for her. She has found her comfort level, she says, in a tight-knit community that includes Ledecky, Drabot and "so many other amazing minds.

"I can walk around the Stanford campus and not really be bombarded for autographs and pictures. It's a normal thing here that every person has done something amazing. I know people who have their own business; one of my friends did a Ted Talk while he was a junior here."

Her academic load includes Swahili, anthropology elective "Genes and Identity" and a physics class on nuclear energy.

"I'm really interested in marketing and advertising," she says. "Or maybe being a broadcast journalist or commentator. I don't know how I feel about commentating. Rowdy Gaines, who commentates, feels like I should try my hand at it."

Manuel won't graduate officially until March 2019, though she'll walk with her class this spring. She's not ready to talk about turning professional just yet; for one more weekend, she'll bask in being a collegian.

Meehan expects a big finish.

"In our collegiate world, she rises to the moment," he says. "I don't think there's anyone else you want in that big moment other than Simone."