Olympic history was made this week when Simone Manuel of Houston, Texas, became the first African-American swimmer to win Olympic Gold. Manuel was competing in her first Olympic games in Rio, Brazil and shocked all by coming out of no where and winning the Gold medal for first place in the 100 meter final and the 4 x 100 meter relay final. Manuel also took the silver in two other events including the 50 meter final. The eyes of the United States were well focused on the performances of Ledecki and Phelps, but no one outside of the U.S Olympic swim team had even heard of Manual.
Manuel’s performance is even more remarkable has it is the first time that an African American swimmer has medaled in any swim event in the Olympics. Manuel’s achievements reach deeper as it touched on the sensitive issue of access to minority athletes to broader sports. Swimming has long been considered a sport for the affluent and moderate affluent and there has been limited access to facilities, training and coaching for many potential minority swimmers.
Manuel’s success is serving as an inspiration to many younger swimmers of all ethnic back grounds who dream of achieving Olympic glory. More importantly, Manuel’s success seems to have turned a long open chapter on the history of segregation that existed in this country. During the height of segregation in the United States from 1900 through the 1960’s, African Americans were subject to institutional discrimination. Specifically, they were not allowed the same access as non minorities. The reach of this segregation extended to recreational facilities such as parks, playgrounds, swimming pools and amusement parks. Access to these facilities were granted to minorities on a limited basis. For example, it was not uncommon for access to the public pool to e limited to African Americans for one weekend during the sumer months.
Access to training facilities and coaching was even more scarce. Over the past few decades, as the history of this country’s segregated past melts away, more access to pool training facilities have become available to a wider economic reach of minority families. Manuel perfected her swimming skills through public and private swimming facilities and training in her home Houston area. Her drive to succeed proved to be her key ingredient to wining in the end.