Simone Manuel made history, raised awareness of “rare” diagnoses. Now she swims for herself
February marks the celebration of Black History Month. This year’s theme — after Association for the Study of African American Life and History – is “resistance”. Yahoo Sports will feature a series of stories highlighting the achievements of pioneering African Americans whose essence is a form of resistance to the status quo in their respective fields.
Simone Manuel describes the moment she became the first black woman to win an Olympic individual gold medal in swimming in a way that illustrates a struggle of her career – one she’s fighting with a fresh start in the sport.
“I think I have to say Rio Gold,” she told Yahoo Sports when asked about her favorite moment of her career. “That’s what people know me for the most, so I feel like I have to respond that way.”
The 26-year-old’s response reflects the pressure to meet expectations from people who may not fully understand her experience. This phenomenon is a main subject of the documentary “Head Above Water” released in January.
The project describes the moments before and after Manuel’s diagnosis of overtraining syndrome ahead of the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The rarely diagnosed reaction occurs when an athlete does not receive adequate recovery after repeated intense training and can include fatigue, declining performance and mood swings.
“It’s really hard to be vulnerable when your story can sometimes be discredited or dismissed. That’s why I was really scared when I put that out,” Manuel told Yahoo Sports.
Manuel, 26, started feeling bad in January 2021. Her coach at the time, Greg Meehan, did not adjust her training regimen. By March, her symptoms — which included a loss of appetite, irritability, difficulty completing “easy” workouts and a erratic heart rate even at rest — were becoming too much to ignore.
“First time I heard about it [overtraining syndrome] was when the doctor said so,” Manuel told Yahoo Sports. She has been prescribed a three-week break from the pool, with the Olympic trials just months away.
In June, after five years of preparing to defend her historic Olympic 100-meter title, she finished 0.02 seconds behind the US team.
She revealed her diagnosis in an emotional post-race press conference, sharing that the pandemic and racial trauma and unrest in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd added to her stress.
“People didn’t think I was actually overtrained,” Manuel said in the documentary, which was produced by TOGETHXR, a media company she co-founded with fellow US Olympic champions Alex Morgan, Sue Bird and Chloe Kim.
“People said I was distracted from all my other sponsorship commitments and as a result I wasn’t performing well. That I got lazy and success went to my head.”
Nevertheless, Manuel qualified freely for the Olympic 50 m. In Tokyo, she qualified 11th for the semifinals but did not make it to the final. Meehan, the head coach of Team USA, chose her for the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay anyway. The move allowed her to contribute an anchor leg that helped the team win bronze.
When Manuel won gold in 2016, she also set an Olympic record and an American record with her time. She expressed feeling “swimming with the weight of the black community.” on her shoulders. Her time in Tokyo represented a new iteration of the well-known pressure to be great in and out of the pool. Only this time she had to learn to deal with the limitations that overtraining syndrome imposed on her ability to perform.
Admittedly a privateer, Manuel took some time off from the pool and moved on with a new coach. Reflecting on that time, she realizes that getting to know yourself and being vulnerable made all the difference.
“Sometimes I push myself more than necessary. And that’s how I learned for myself that having that strength is really great, but most of all it’s important to rest and take care of yourself,” Manuel told Yahoo Sports.
Simone Manuel approaches well-known topics in a new way
In her documentary, Manuel’s mother Sharron remembers how her daughter flew back from the difficult Tokyo experience on her 25th birthday. In order not to remind Simone of what she could not achieve, Sharron hid all the Olympic memorabilia.
“It’s a lonely place where nobody really understands what you’re going through mentally and physically,” Manuel told Yahoo Sports.
Manuel spent six months away from training between her hometown of Houston and California, where she was living at the time. The decision to rest was markedly different from her post-Rio experience, when she threw herself into training and philanthropic and advocacy endeavors.
Between enjoying her mother’s cooking and spending time with her fiancé and two brothers, Manuel was reminded of something.
“What matters to me is who I am and what my truth is. I think it elevates me mentally because of course swimming is something I do but it’s not who I am,” she told Yahoo Sports. “Even through this trial and error, it’s really nice to take a step back from what you’re dealing with and just take care of yourself as a person.”
When Manuel turned 26 in August, it couldn’t have been more different than last year. Once full of emotion as she unpacked her bags from the 2020 Olympics, Manuel got ready to pack and move with excitement. The former Stanford Cardinal left California to join Arizona State’s professional squad and work primarily with Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps’ longtime coach.
Her documentary begins with memories of her youth, when she was the only black girl at the pool and grappled with racist comments. It ends with her hopes for the future:
“I just want to swim with no pressure or expectations from anyone, not even myself. I don’t know what that looks like, but I think that’s next for me and that’s definitely going to be the focus: getting back into the sport fall in love and just be happy.”
In an interview with Yahoo Sports, she admitted the solution was easier said than done, but she’s working on it every day. She returned to competition in January at the Knoxville Pro Swim Series and placed third in the 50m free. Fittingly, Manuel’s documentary was released over the weekend of her return to competition.
The film drew messages of support, and many athletes told Manuel that her story helped them realize they were overtrained. She offered advice and reveled in the newfound community. The complex disorder occurs most frequently in endurance sports, but has not yet been adequately researched for a uniform diagnosis. It is estimated that 30-40% of top athletes in all sports are affected.
“I hate to admit it,” Manuel told Yahoo Sports. “Maybe it pays to be a little more vulnerable with people, not worry too much about the negative comments, and focus on the people whose lives you actually touch and make their lives a little better.”
Now she’s reflecting on the 2016 version, which felt pressure to represent and advocate for the black community and beyond.
“I think my existence in sport represents a place where that weight is being placed on me. I think for me it’s really about not putting that pressure on myself to feel like I need to be everything to everyone, that I need to be the only contributor to why inclusion and equality in swimming matters.” , Manuel told Yahoo Sports.
“Obviously, those are my ultimate goals outside of the pool,” she clarified. “I think sometimes I swam for other people to inspire other people to get more people into swimming. I think it’s more important for me now to swim for Simone. And everything else will take care of it itself .”
https://sports.yahoo.com/simone-manuel-made-history-raised-awareness-for-overtraining-syndrome-now-shes-swimming-for-herself-210112948.html?src=rss Simone Manuel made history, raised awareness of “rare” diagnoses. Now she swims for herself