As proponents of sports, we’re quick to list the valuable lessons imparted by athletics.
Competition provides instruction on teamwork, discipline, commitment, dedication and sportsmanship. Participants (and spectators, vicariously) experience sweet victories and bitter defeats, which serve as classwork on appreciation and perspective.
Unfortunately, some folks prefer to skip certain sections of sports education, like topics that can bring discomfort and cause uneasiness. Subjects that can stir negative emotions and painful memories. Courses that come with a mirror and require self-reflection, examination and evaluation.
But we do ourselves a disservice if we avoid the totality that sports offers. That’s like attending college and enrolling in nothing outside of physical education. What a wasted opportunity.
So when we consider the accomplishments of Simone Manuel, a 20-year-old Stanford University student from Sugar Land, Texas, we can’t stop at the fact that she’s an NCAA champion in the 50- and 100-yard freestyle. We have to move beyond her gold medals at the Rio Olympics in the 100-meter freestyle and 4×100-meter medley relay. We have to go further than her silver medals in the 50 freestyle and 4×100 freestyle medley.
Yes, she’s the first U.S. woman to ever finish top-two in both freestyle sprints at the Olympics. Yes, she set a U.S. record and tied an Olympic record in the 100-meter freestyle. Yes, she was only two hundredths of a second behind Denmark’s Pernille Blume in the 50-meter freestyle.
But it’s impossible to extract the full value of those accomplishments without acknowledging Manuel’s African-American heritage. Her background should be highlighted because it adds important context to the story.
To disregard or downplay her race is to shun knowledge and enlightenment. That’s never a wise choice, unless ignorance is the goal.
“The gold medal wasn’t just for me,” Manuel told reporters after winning the 100-meter freestyle. “It was for people that came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport. For people who believe that they can’t do it. I hope I’m an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. You might be pretty good at it.”
Exploring a new activity and expanding your horizon are fundamental elements of a learned mind.
But history has worked against blacks when it comes to pools. Manuel had to overcome a century of persistent stereotypes, restrictive policies, crazy myths, lingering falsehoods and negative perceptions to become the first African-American woman to win an individual gold medal in Olympic swimming.
Generations of Americans – black, white and other – grew up with the belief that blacks can’t swim. Some folks blamed nature, pointing to general differences in bone density between blacks and whites. Denser bones result in decreased buoyancy, but even a non-buoyant person can still swim. Ask all the “non-buoyant” blacks in the U.S. Marine Corps, where every recruit must pass a stringent, vigorous swimming test.
Physiology didn’t lead to blacks-can’t-swim mythology; sociology was the root, lack of opportunity more than lack of ability.
As a child who spent several summers at a sleepaway camp for up to six weeks in the 1970s, I was unaware of the privilege in having a place – in this case, a lake – where swimming was taught and enjoyed. I didn’t know that swimming pools in America had a long, sad history of racism dating to the ‘20s and ‘30s, when public facilities began to proliferate throughout the North. Fear of blacks swimming with whites – specifically black men and white women – led northern pools to adopt the same segregation policies found in the South.
When integration became the law, many cities closed their public pools to avoid mixed-race swimming. Other cities abandoned their pools as white fled to neighborhoods and private clubs where blacks plainly were unwelcome.
Examples of those attitudes still exist in some instances. In 2009, a club in suburban Philadelphia rescinded its contract with a summer camp that had paid $1,950 to bring 65 black and Latino youths to the pool every Monday. The club president said the lease was canceled because “there was concern [among the members] that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club.”
Manuel has grown accustomed to being a lone ranger in the pool. When she was 11, Manuel asked her mother why there weren’t more black swimmers. But the youngster didn’t let scarcity affect her passion. Now she’s positioned to help increase the number of black swimmers, period – which is way more important than how many reach world-class status.
USA Swimming estimates that 70 percent of black children don’t know how to swim. The Centers for Disease Control says black children are five-and-a-half times likelier to drown than white kids. Manuel doesn’t want to be defined by her race but she understands the significance.
“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,” she told reporters. “… I’m super glad with the fact that I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport.