Simone Manuel made history during the Rio Olympics when she became the first African-American female to win an individual medal in swimming. In total, Manuel brought home two gold and two silver medals for Team USA. I spoke with Simone about her Olympic experience and her Stanford swim team’s phenomenal season. We talked about her involvement in the USA Swimming Foundation’s “Make a Splash” program. And she shared some secrets to her success outside the pool as well.
Congratulations on all of your Olympic success! What was your favorite part of the whole experience?
My favorite part about the Olympic experience was just being able to represent USA and be a part of the great culture of American swimming. I’ve made so many memories with the people on the Olympic team. That’s something that I will always remember.
The Olympics is the ultimate pressure situation and you obviously handled it extremely well. What’s your strategy for handling pressure in sports and in life?
Well actually, I think the Olympics was less pressure than the Olympic trials [laughs]. But as far as handling pressure in life, I think that it just takes a lot of practice. I’ve been to many international and national meets. And that has helped me gain confidence to be able to step up on the blocks and know that I can race well. I think just having confidence in the work that I have put in at practice helps me take some of the pressure off of myself.
What was the biggest challenge growing up in a sport with so few minority athletes?
I think the biggest challenge for me was fitting in. I didn’t always feel like I could do it because there weren’t many people that looked like me. Especially when social groups were formed, I didn’t really know where to go.
How has your experience shaped the way you treat others?
I think not feeling like I fit in helped me gain experience in being more conscientious of other people, their feelings, and trying not to leave them out of things. Always include people. And just treat people with respect because that’s the way that people should be treated.
I know that you want to encourage more kids, and minorities in particular, to give swimming a try. What can you tell them about the Make a Splash program? And why is it important to get involved?
It’s really important to get involved in swimming because it’s a life-saving skill. And with the Make a Splash program, the goal of USA Swimming and the USA Swimming Foundation is to give a million swim lessons to children. It’s important to be safe around the water and comfortable when you’re swimming.
A surprising number of kids never learn how to swim. What advice do you have for kids who are not comfortable in the water?
Go get formal swim lessons because formal swim lessons reduce the drowning rate by 88%. And that’s the most important thing. There’s no such thing as being water-safe. But you’ll be safer around the water and you’ll be more comfortable when you do have swimming experiences.
Since most of us won’t be swimming for Olympic medals, what other benefits can we expect to get from recreational or competitive swimming?
The biggest benefit that you get out of swimming is that it’s a life-saving skill. And as you said, it’s not everybody who will be swimming for Olympic medals. But I’ve gained so many friends. I’ve been able to travel. And I’ve been able to learn so much about myself. I think those are definitely benefits that come from being a part of a swimming community and any other athletic endeavor that someone might be a part of.
Who were some of your heroes growing up and why?
Serena Williams is someone I really look up to. She’s a minority in the sport of tennis. And I just relate to her so well and some of the experiences that she’s had. And that’s like my biggest hero!
How has your life changed since becoming a role model for so many young people?
I’d like to think that my life hasn’t changed too much. But it’s pretty cool to be considered a role model to young athletes and especially inspire them to get into the sport. Swimming has given me so much and it’s amazing that my sport can guide people to want to learn how to swim.
You’ve not only reached the top of your sport, you’re also attending Stanford, one of the top universities in the country. What have you gained from your experience there?
I’ve gained a lot from my experience at Stanford. It’s a pretty tough school, so I definitely have to challenge my mind. I have so much support there, so that's really been able to help my academic and athletic endeavors. It’s a challenge, but swimming and school have been a part of my whole life. It’s pretty cool to be at a place that values both of those things.
What tips do you have for kids who are balancing competitive sports and academics?
Have a schedule and stick to it. I think when it comes to academics, always stay on top of your work and don’t procrastinate. I always like to say, “I have to compartmentalize.” So when I’m in school, I’m focusing on school. And when at swim, I’m focusing on swim. I don’t let the two mesh together. So it’s kind of like a balancing act that I don’t get too bogged down with one or the other.
You’ve had an amazing season at Stanford. What are some of your favorite memories?
Well, my team won the NCAA championship. So that was definitely a great memory! That was the goal for our team for the whole year. To be able to do that and win an NCAA championship was really exciting! It had been nineteen years since we won, so it was pretty cool.
What’s the biggest benefit of training with such a dominant team at Stanford and with so many fellow Olympians?
I think that the biggest benefit of training with so many great athletes on the swim team is that we are all focused, and we push each other to reach our goals. We work very hard, and all of the Stanford women on the swim team are so supportive. I wouldn’t be the swimmer that I am without them. So I’m very thankful for them!
What do you think about when training in the pool for hours and hours?
[laughs] I don’t think about that much. It depends. Sometimes it’s something as simple as, “What am I going to eat after this practice?” I think about a lot of technical things that I’m swimming. But most of the time I’m not thinking about anything. I feel like the pool is a place for me to kind of shut off my brain.
What do you envision doing in life once your swimming career is over?
I’m not sure. I know I’m really interested in marketing and advertising. So we’ll see where that takes me!
To find formal swim lessons near you, visit www.USASwimmingFoundation.org.
(Photo credit: ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images)