Meet Gold Medalist Simone Manuel and 7 Other Swimmers Who Broke Barriers for Black People

Meet Gold Medalist Simone Manuel and 7 Other Swimmers Who Broke Barriers for Black People
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

On Thursday night, Simone Manuel made history by becoming the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in an individual swimming event, by winning the 100 freestyle.

Earlier this week, Manuel was one half of the first black duo to be on the same U.S. Olympic team with her Stanford teammate Lia Neal. Together, they helped the U.S. team win the silver medal in the 4x100 freestyle relay.

Manuel has a chance to achieve another historic milestone in the 50 freestyle, which begins heats Friday afternoon.

While Manuel made a historic milestone Thursday night, there's an enormous amount of pressure in being a young black world-class swimmer, she said.

"That's something I've definitely struggled with a lot, just coming into this race tonight," Manuel told Yahoo News. "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."

Manuel is grateful for being an inspiration to so many young women and hopes that one day, with more black swimmers on the world stage, she'll be seen more than just "the black swimmer."

"I do kind of hope it goes away," she said. "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.'

When Manuel smashed records, she also shattered stereotypes about black people and swimming. Yahoo News reported that, according to USA Swimming, about 70% of black children don't know how to swim. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also estimates that black children are 5.5 times more likely to drown than white children.

But these statistics are the result of centuries of institutional racism that barred the black community from swimming pools. White swimming pools were of a higher quality and provided more resources than to those allocated for the black community. Once public spaces were desegregated, white swimmers took to private swim clubs to effectively avoid swimming with black Americans. 

This makes Manuel's gold-medal finish more than just a historic moment; it's a a political statement — one that highlights the perseverance and resilience of the black community in the face of anti-black institutional racism.

While Manuel is sure to quickly become a household name, it's important to remember that there were plenty of black swimmers who paved the way for her. Here are some of them:

Enith Brigitha is the first black swimmer to medal in Olympic history.

Enith Brigitha
Source: 
Uncredited/AP

At the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, Brigitha became the first black swimmer to win a medal in the Olympics. She earned the bronze medal in the 100 freestyle for the Netherlands, but after news broke out that the two East German swimmers were using banned substances, many have claimed that she deserved or should've earned the gold medal.

Anthony Nesty is the first black swimmer in Olympic history to win a gold medal.

Anthony Nesty receives his gold medal
Source: 
Tony Duffy/Getty Images

At the 1986 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Nesty shook up the world.

Nesty — representing Suriname — edged out the U.S. favorite Matt Biondi by one-hundredth of a second in the 100 butterfly.

His race was compared to Michael Phelps' highly controversial finish at the 2008 Beijing Olympics where he out touched Serbia's Milorad Cavic by .01 seconds in the 100 butterfly.

Nesty, who hailed from the University of Florida, was also the first black male swimmer to win an NCAA Division 1 Championship swimming the 100-yard butterfly in 1990. 

Sabir Muhammad is the first black swimmer to break a U.S. record.

Sabir Muhammad
Source: 
Simon Bruty/Getty Images

Muhammad broke his first American record in 1997 while representing Stanford University for the 100 butterfly. 

Three years later, Muhammad became the first black swimmer in U.S. history to medal at a major international swimming competition. Like Jones, Muhammad was introduced to the sport by a near-drowning experience.

His mother then signed him up for swim lessons and the rest is history. He broke 10 American records and became a five-time U.S. Open swimming champion.

Anthony Ervin is the first black swimmer to qualify for the U.S. Olympic swim team.

Anthony Ervin
Source: 
David Longstreath/AP

Ervin, the son of a half black and half Native-American father, was the first black swimmer to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. He was 19 years old. 

At the 2000 Olympics, he also was the first black swimmer in the United States to win a gold medal. Several years later, he auctioned that gold medal to donate to the Red Cross Tsunami relief fund.

Ervin, who has been diagnosed with Tourette's, made another milestone at the 2016 Rio Olympics. At 35 years old, he was the oldest member on the U.S. Olympic swim team. The three-time Olympian won the gold medal in the 50 freestyle race in 2000 and won gold for the 4x100 freestyle relay in 2016.

The swimmer has been dubbed as the most "fascinating" swimmer by sports columnists, and has been vocal about race and colorism in a recent interview.

Maritza Correia McClendon is the first Puerto Rican of African descent to qualify for the U.S. Olympic swim team.

Maritza Correia
Source: 
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Correia, who started swimming to treat her scoliosis, was also the first black female swimmer to break a U.S. record. Swimming for the University of Georgia, Correia broke the American records for 50- and 100-yard freestyle at the 2002 NCAA championships. The 100 freestyle U.S. record was held by the then-most decorated U.S. Olympic swimmer Jenny Thompson.

Correia was also the first black woman swimmer to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team and to medal at the Olympic Games. She won the silver medal for the 4x100 freestyle relay for the 2004 Olympic Games.

With her achievements, Correia became a trailblazer in the sport for young female black swimmers.

Cullen Jones is the first black swimmer to set a world record.

Cullen Jones
Source: 
Martin Bureau /Getty Images

Cullen Jones became a competitive swimmer after he almost drowned at a water park when he was 5 years old. While Jones said he often received subtly racist comments from white swimmers and their parents, he kept on swimming. 

When he was a senior at North Carolina State University, he became the NCAA Division 1 Champion in the 50-yard freestyle. In 2006, he landed a sponsorship deal with Nike, and made history by breaking and holding the world record in the 4x100 freestyle relay at the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships.

Two years later, he was part of a team that broke that record again at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. On the podium stand with teammates Jason Lezak, Garrett Weber-Gale and Michael Phelps, Jones became the second black swimmer to earn the gold medal.

Jones and Correia have been often regarded, and viewed, as the face of black swimming. The two-time Olympian also has been a leader in spreading swimming to marginalized communities, and launched the Cullen Jones Diversity Invitational that brought over 500 swimmers from all different ethnic communities to compete in the swim meet.

Andrew Young was the first black swimmer to be awarded and honored by the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Andrew Young
Source: 
Pool/Getty Images

Young swam for Howard University, a historically black college, in the 1950s, a time when blacks were banned from numerous swimming pools. He went on to become a major political change maker because of it.

In 1992, the International Swimming Hall of Fame awarded Young the gold medallion for his efforts in making swimming more inclusive to the black community. After being elected mayor of Atlanta in 1981, he battled the racist institution of swimming pools and allocated over $1.2 million to build them in the inner cities of the Atlanta area.

Young, a close friend and political supporter of Martin Luther King Jr., went on to become a U.S. Congressman for the 5th District of Georgia and then the U.S. Ambassador for the United Nations.

Now, Manuel will join these black swimmers who made history, and hopefully inspire a whole new generation of young black children to set new milestones in the sport.

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Sarah A. Harvard

Sarah is a staff writer covering religion, race and politics. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, Slate, The Huffington Post, TeenVogue, and VICE. Send tips and feedback: sharvard@mic.com

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