By Alan Baldwin
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – As an African-American swimmer, Simone Manuel has carried a weight on her shoulders every time she steps onto the starting blocks.
The gold medal placed around her neck on Thursday could help to lift it.
Making history as the first black woman swimmer to win an individual Olympic title for the United States, Manuel spoke of her desire to change attitudes and addressed some of the issues head-on.
“This medal is not just for me, it’s for some of the African-Americans that have come before me and have been inspirations and mentors to me,” she said after a dead-heat in the 100 meters freestyle final resulted in two golds being awarded. The other went to 16-year-old Canadian Penny Oleksiak.
“I think it means a lot, especially what’s going on in the world today with some of the issues with police brutality,” she added, without going into detail.
“I think that this win kind of helps bring hope and change to some of the issues that are going on.”
A string of fatal shootings of black men and women by white police officers has triggered protests, some violent, across the United States in recent weeks.
Manuel, 20, who comes from Houston and attends Stanford University, is one of two African-American women who qualified for the U.S. swim team — the other being Lia Neal who won a 4×100 freestyle relay bronze in Rio.
Thursday’s final was only the third time two golds have been awarded as a result of a dead heat and it was fitting that the other recipient was another youngster breaking down the doors and redefining perceptions.
Oleksiak, the first Olympic champion born in the 21st century, has now won four medals in Rio.
Manuel said she hoped her first gold would bring change.
“Just coming into this race tonight I kind of tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me just being in this position,” said Manuel.
“I do hope that it kind of goes away. I’m super glad with the fact that I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport.
“But at the same time I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone the black swimmer’ because the title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal, not supposed to be able to break records.”
“I work just as hard as anyone else and I love this sport and I want to win just like everyone else.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Patrick Johnston)