Team USA swimmer Simone Manuel might not be on your Tokyo radar—but she should be. The unstoppable, record-breaking athlete is going for her fifth Olympic medal this summer, and she's totally ready to dominate the pool.
You already know Olympians like Simone Biles and Lindsey Vonn for their incredible success at the Games and their determination to win it all. Here's everything to know about 24-year-old Simone "Swimone" Manuel before she makes her own mark in Japan:
Simone's been breaking swimming records since she was in college.
Simone graduated from Stanford University in 2018 with a degree in communications. Even back then, she was setting a precedent in the pool. As a freshman, Simone was a four-time national champion. Plus, she currently holds five (five!) Stanford swimming records in the 50 free, 100 free, 200 free relay, 400 free relay, and the 800 free relay, per Team USA.
In 2017, she became the first woman to swim the 100-yard freestyle in under 46 seconds. Her time of 45.56 seconds set a new NCAA and American record.
Simone's kept up her record-breaking streak for years now. At the 2016 Rio Olympics, she became the first African American woman to win an individual gold medal in Olympic swimming, per ESPN. Of course, she also took home three other medals (a gold and two silvers), just to top off her amazing Rio performance.
"I never thought I'd be the first African American woman to win gold in swimming," she told ESPN. "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."
Then, in July 2019, Simone became the first American woman to win both the 50 and 100 freestyles at the world swimming championships. As if that wasn't enough, she also broke an American record in the 100 with her time of 52.04 seconds. So it seems pretty safe to say that she's well on her way to continuing her streak of awe-inspiring firsts in Tokyo.
"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," she said. "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," Simone continued. "It's never my intention to be a first, though I want to accomplish more things, which hopefully includes more feats and more firsts."
She started swimming lessons when she was 4 years old.
Simone may live in California now, but her roots are in Texas. Her parents first enrolled her in swim lessons when she was 4 to make sure she'd be safe around water, according to Team USA. She started seriously focusing on swimming when she was 9 before joining Houston's First Colony Swim Team and becoming a top competitor when she was 11.
Simone reportedly remembers going to a swimming clinic when she was little and meeting an Olympian, who gave her a medal to wear. That's when her dream to compete in the Olympics was born.
Simone refused to let the pandemic put a dent in her Tokyo training.
With Tokyo was approaching, Simone wasn't about to let a lack of training facilities miss out on another chance to win the gold.
"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," she told ESPN. "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."
But an overtraining syndrome diagnosis could impact her Tokyo performance.
All of that work took its toll on Simone. At a recent press conference, Simone revealed that her underperformance at the Olympic trials was due to overtraining syndrome. The condition is defined as a "maladapted response to excessive exercise without adequate rest," per NBC Chicago.
After training too hard during the pandemic, Simone missed out on additional training that could have helped her succeed at the trials. "I had moments where I didn’t even want to go to the pool because I knew it was going to be bad," she said. "It was an uphill climb once I got back into the water. That was hard because I love this sport."
As a result, Simone only qualified for one event: the 50m freestyle. "This isn’t the last time you’re going to see me," she added. "This isn’t the last time I’m going to do something great in the pool. I’m confident in that."
Outside the Olympics, Simone is an activist for underrepresented athletes and students across the country.
When she's not in the water, Simone is known for her social justice activism. In 2018, she added an inclusion rider into her contract with swimsuit manufacturer TYR sport. The clause was Simone's way of making sure that "her partners extend meaningful opportunities to traditionally underrepresented groups"—and it's unprecedented in the world of pro sports.
As a Black woman in a predominantly white sport, Simone also finds ways to help make her field more racially inclusive. As an ambassador with the USA Swimming Foundation, her goals are to "ensure more minorities have an opportunity to learn to swim and get involved in the sport she loves," per USA Swimming.
Simone has also partnered with many schools to add swimming curriculums into their programs. "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," she said.
"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," she added. "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."
She's all here for increased transparency in professional sports.
Simone has also been outspoken about tackling tough issues in pro sports. "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," she said, per ESPN.
"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."
But Simone knows the work is far from over "We need to continue to have these conversations, these tough conversations," she continued.
"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."
She has her sights set on future Games, too.
While she has big plans for the future, for now, Simone is focusing on doing her best in Japan. "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," she said.
After Tokyo, she wants to compete in the 2024 and 2028 Olympics, and after that—who knows? The sky is clearly her limit.