STANFORD, Calif. In 2016 at the Rio de Janeiro Games, Simone Manuel became the first Black female swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal. Her freestyle technique earned accolades for its textbook form.
She cemented her dominance as a freestyle sprinter by winning seven medals at the 2019 World Championships, setting a record for female swimmers.
But at the U.S. Olympic trials for Tokyo, Manuel, 24, failed to qualify for her signature event, the 100-meter freestyle. She then revealed that she had been grappling with overtraining syndrome, whose symptoms include muscle soreness, weight loss and fatigue. She also said that being Black during a year of racial unrest had been mentally draining.
Manuel had one last chance to make the U.S. team. On the final day of the trials, she secured a spot, finishing first in the 50-meter freestyle.
Manuel grew up in Sugar Land, Texas. “I started swimming at the age of 4. And the second day of swim lessons, I swam across the pool,” Manuel said.
Even in the early days, her coaches saw her promise because of her strong kick and competitive spirit.
In 2014, Manuel enrolled at Stanford University on a swimming scholarship. Three years later, at the 2017 World Aquatics Championships, she became the fastest American woman to swim the 50-meter freestyle.
For a closer look at Manuel’s technique, we spent time with her at the Avery Aquatic Center at Stanford University as she trained for the Olympics.
A Fast Entry
The 50-meter freestyle is a sprint across one length of the pool. Speed, rhythm and technique are crucial — and from the moment Manuel enters the water, she doesn’t take a breath. If the race goes well, it will take her 37 strokes and just under 24 seconds to finish.
It all begins on the blocks. Manuel’s world-class start focuses more on her transition from air to water than her reaction to the start signal.
“You’re actually going faster on the entry of your start than you are at any other point during the race,” said Greg Meehan, the head coach of the United States Olympic women’s swim team.
Kicking right away would slow Manuel’s momentum, so she holds her streamlined position for about half a second before starting her kicks.
She performs six dolphin kicks as she accelerates to the surface and then transitions to a flutter kick and her very first stroke.
Catch and Pull
In her freestyle stroke, Manuel combines a powerful kick with precise arm movements. Her hands and arms “catch and pull” water to propel her body forward.
“She is a textbook model, and when I educate coaches and athletes on freestyle technique, she is one of the examples,” said Russell Mark, the high-performance manager for USA Swimming.
Manuel swims the 50-meter freestyle without taking a breath, like many elite swimmers in this event. This allows her to maintain a high stroke rate and a narrow body line.
“The reason I don’t breathe in the 50 free is also because the margin of error is very small,” Manuel said. “People win by hundredths of a second, and so sometimes taking a breath can really make a difference.”
At a competition in March, Manuel won the 50 freestyle by 0.3 seconds.
Rhythm and Rotation
If Manuel is selected to race in the 4×100-meter relays in Tokyo, she will display her efficient breathing technique.
Manuel’s body rotates when her arms enter and exit the water. She turns her head and inhales — mostly to her left side — very early in the rotation and then quickly whips her head back down in the water. This allows her to recenter and keep her rate consistent.
And yet, all of Manuel’s years spent honing the perfect stroke guarantee nothing. After her disappointment at the U.S. trials, Manuel knows that better than anyone.
A bad entry into the water or a momentary loss of rhythm can sink even the most decorated, barrier-breaking champion, especially in a race in which the difference between winning and losing comes down to fractions of a second.
She has trained for five long years since her breakthrough moment at the Rio Games. Now she will have about 24 seconds to make it all worthwhile.