Olympic dreams don't stop for global pandemics. Even when said Summer Games are postponed, and athletes around the world are forced to quarantine and self-isolate to help stop the spread of the virus, the desire for greatness doesn't just fade away.
It just makes it a little tougher.
Simone Manuel, who became a household name with her four-medal performance at the 2016 Rio Olympics, knows this all too well. When the pool at Stanford University, where she trains, was closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, she had to find a new place to swim. With so many facilities in the area temporarily shut down, it was a tough task, but she ultimately found someone (whom she won't name to protect their privacy) with a pool in their backyard who has been gracious enough to let her come over and swim every day.
"I've been really lucky with that," Manuel said by phone. "Of course, I'm still maintaining social distancing, so I really just go over, get in the pool, get my swim in and then leave. Then, I work out at home; I've just been trying to maintain strength as best possible. I've been trying to adapt my weight workouts since I don't have a full weight room, so some of that includes putting books in a backpack and trying to find different ways to adapt my workout so that I'm still getting the work and the strength that I need without having all the equipment that I usually use."
Manuel said it has been challenging, and said she never exactly envisioned her Palo Alto, California, apartment would become her primary gym, as well as the place she almost exclusively spends all of her time. In fact, the 23-year-old can't remember the last time she was in one place for so long. She misses her family in Texas, whom she hasn't seen in months, and the thrill of competition. She admits it can be hard to stay motivated when there is no race marked on the calendar, or any semblance of a concrete timeline for a competitive return, but she's trying to make the most of it.
"I'm just working hard and trying to stay mentally and physically focused and doing what I can to maintain this competitive edge," Manuel said. "I'm just kind of taking it day by day and trying to control the controllables. I know that's such a cliché thing, but really just trying to make the best out of the situation and focusing on myself. I think that's what helped a little bit is trying not to focus on, 'Oh, what is someone else doing over here? What is someone else doing over here,' but really just focusing on what's important for me.
"I've been able to kind of get into meditating, which is something that I hadn't done in the past. I've been stretching 15 minutes every day, which is something that I never did. So I'm really just finding ways to better myself outside of the pool. Obviously, I've been able to watch TV a little bit more and things like that, but the biggest focus for me has been, since I have a little bit more downtime, how I can improve myself out of the pool so that when things hopefully get back to normal, I'll be ahead of the game."
While the circumstances are different these days, Manuel has been focused on improving and separating herself from her opposition since her star-making turn in Rio. During the 2016 Games, Manuel became the first African American woman to win an individual gold in swimming when she stood atop the podium after the 100-meter freestyle. She took home gold as part of the 4x100 medley relay and won silver medals in the 50-meter freestyle and the 4x100 freestyle.
Manuel since has won 13 medals at the world championships, including nine golds, and has broken three American records. She has lofty goals for Tokyo, and knows more history awaits her whenever the Olympics, and other races, happen.
As USA Swimming was one of the first major federations to publicly announce its support for the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Manuel wasn't surprised when the decision was finally announced to delay the Games until 2021. Calling it "bittersweet," she says she knew it was the right thing to do and was relieved that the guessing game about its status was over.
A 2018 Stanford graduate with a communications major, Manuel has become known for her activism and work in the community, including an inclusion rider built into her contract with swimsuit manufacturer TYR. As one of the few African American swimmers at the elite level of the predominately white sport, she works as an ambassador with USA Swimming to help make it more racially inclusive, as well as partnering with programs and schools, such as LeBron James' I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, in helping to teach children in inner cities how to swim and stay safe in the water. While much of that work has been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, she has tried to find new ways to give back.
"I've been working with Hunger Not Impossible, and I actually donated several meals for people that need it during this time," said Manuel, who is also starring in BIC Soleil Sensitive Advanced's "Game On" campaign. "I think that's something that is definitely needed, especially with the current situation of people not having jobs and experiencing [financial insecurity]. So that's really something that I'm excited about, and I've been trying to find ways of hopefully being a catalyst to inspire people to continue to be confident throughout this time and make the most of the situation."
She has tried to lead by example and be as productive and resourceful as possible during this uncertain time, and she tries to keep fans inspired by frequent posts on her social media accounts and brand partnerships. But still, like seemingly everyone, she will be more grateful than ever when life is able to get back to somewhat normal.
"[The past two months] have made me more appreciative for getting to compete," Manuel said. "That's definitely what I miss the most. I'm someone that gets my confidence from working hard in practice every day, but it's not the same when there's no checkpoint of a competition. So I know that when the next competition comes, I'm going to be so excited for it."