Being first often carries a sense of responsibility. You are the standard, the game-changer. You're expected to create a path for those who follow.
Olympic swimmer Simone Manuel manages to do so on her terms.
Manuel made history at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro when she became the first African American woman to win an individual gold in Olympic swimming. The 24-year-old Stanford alum, who graduated in 2018 with a communications degree, won four medals in Rio: gold in the 100-meter freestyle and the 4x100-meter medley and silver in the 50-meter freestyle and the 4x100-meter freestyle relay.
In July 2019, the 14-time NCAA champion became the first American woman to sweep the 50 and 100 freestyles at the world swimming championships. Manuel also broke an American record in the 100 with a time of 52.04 seconds.
The Texas native and current California resident isn't solely focused on earning additional "first" titles at the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics. "My goal is to compete, do my best and win medals. ... My intent is to be the best Simone that I can be, and everything else is just a byproduct of the hard work that I put in," Manuel said.
Beyond her accolades in the pool, Manuel has become known for her social justice and inclusion activism. In the summer of 2018, she put an inclusion rider into her contract with swimsuit manufacturer TYR Sport to ensure that "her partners extend meaningful opportunities to traditionally underrepresented groups." That is believed to be the first rider of its kind in pro sports.
Manuel, one of the few African American swimmers at the elite level of the predominantly white sport, works as an ambassador with the USA Swimming Foundation and to help make swimming more racially inclusive. She also partnered with numerous school-based programs, such as LeBron James' I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, to develop swim curriculums.
Manuel talked with espnW ahead of its Women + Sports virtual summit kickoff on Tuesday to discuss her platform for change, training during a pandemic, her endless quest for greatness and all of her firsts.
ESPN: At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, you won four Olympic medals and became the first African American woman to win gold in swimming. Looking back, how did you manage the pressure that comes with being first?
Simone Manuel: I never thought I'd be the first African American woman to win gold in swimming. Going into the 2016 Olympics, I had a goal of competing well and winning individual medals. Not thinking about it in advance allowed me to take that pressure off myself going into the Games.
Even when I thought, "I might be the first," my goal was to compete, do my best and win medals -- not because I'm a Black woman trying to break a barrier. The same is true today. There is an immense amount of pressure on me. I hold myself to high standards and high expectations based on my work and what I do in practice. It's never my intention to be a first, though I want to accomplish more things, which hopefully includes more feats and more firsts.
My existence as a Black woman in swimming, where I'm always the minority, and the experiences that I face day in and day out have driven me to want to make a change. I'm always seeking ways to give back to my community or inspire others to dream beyond traditional assumptions or stereotypes or advocate for change or equality. And I want to continue to do that in the swim space. I've done so through my very existence and the experiences that I have had. And I've done that through LeBron James' I Promise School, where I worked on the swimming curriculum.
ESPN: You're always training, but you had a pre-pandemic goal in mind: the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games. How did you reset after learning that the Games were postponed to 2021?
SM: Since the pandemic and the Olympics postponement, I haven't taken a break from training. When the pandemic first hit, I was scrambling for pools to train in, and I was only out of the water for maybe two days before I was lucky enough to be able to swim in someone's backyard pool, a two-lane, 25-yard pool. I worked in that pool for a couple of months, and then, toward the end of June, Stanford opened up, and we've been training there with restrictions and guidelines for how to keep ourselves safe and socially distanced.
I'm still practicing nine times a week and getting in the weight room or doing my dry land workouts in my apartment. My training schedule hasn't changed. My coach, Greg Meehan, has found creative ways to make competitions at the Stanford pool. We suit up, and we race our teammates in particular events and emulate preliminaries and finals. We're finding ways to continue to train hard.
ESPN: Have your expectations in the sport shifted?
SM: I've always sought to find the beauty in going to practice every day and getting better and being with my teammates and enjoying the social aspect of swimming. Now I'm lucky enough to be a part of Team Toyota and meet amazing athletes in other areas. That creates fun in itself, being part of another community beyond the sport of swimming. I find ways to have fun. And when you have fun, it allows you the opportunity to continue to work hard and chase that perfection that every athlete is seeking.
I like to live and think in the moment, especially when we're thinking about this pandemic and all the other issues that are going on in the world. I need to focus on the things that I can control. If 2021 doesn't happen, I will be training to compete at the 2024 Olympics and hopefully the 2028 Olympics.
ESPN: Athletes have become more vocal on social justice and inclusion inequities. How do you think that translates to the fan?
SM: As athletes, we try to give our time and energy to fans by signing autographs or interacting on social media. It's a two-way street. We find ways to respect and appreciate the fans, and I think we ask for the same in return. Regardless of whether the fans agree with our stances or not, I think it's important to respect the athletes and respect their work. Athletes are people too. We have thoughts, feelings, emotions when we leave the field of play, go home and have a life. When we go into our workspace, we carry that with us.
ESPN: Athletes have become more outspoken on how they manage their mental health, especially during the pandemic. How do you think this will impact sports in the long term?
SM: One of the positives of this pandemic and this racial and social reckoning is that many of life's challenges and issues are coming to light. One of those challenges is how we manage our mental health. This pandemic and being away from your family and friends, it exacerbates the issue. However, I think it's awesome that athletes feel like they can be vulnerable and share their mental health experiences.
We need to continue to have these conversations, these tough conversations. And if we're talking about racial and social justice and equality for all, this is a marathon, and we all have to keep fighting. But allowing people to hear your story and learn from them and work to make the change is how we will make a difference -- not only for today but for the generations to come.