U.S. swimmer Simone Manuel made waves last year when she won gold at the Rio Olympics. Not only did she set a record during the women's 100-meter freestyle race, tying with Canada's Penny Oleksiak at 52.70 seconds, but she also became the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming event — and all at the ripe young age of 20.
Manuel's historic win is so important because it challenged the pervasive notion that African-Americans can't swim. Now a year later, Manuel is continuing to fight that typecasting.
In a blog for Essence, the 21-year-old revealed that she never let the racial stereotype or the lack of black role models in swimming deter her from reaching her goals.
When I'm referred to as an African-American Olympic swimmer, it makes it seem as though it's not supposed to be done, which isn't true.
"When I'm referred to as an African-American Olympic swimmer, it makes it seem as though it's not supposed to be done, which isn't true. I work just as hard as anybody, I love the sport and I want to win just like everybody else," she wrote.
"It wasn't always easy not having many swimmers who looked like me. But I enjoyed it and wanted to keep swimming and get stronger and faster."
Manuel then noted a startling fact: "I've seen the statistic from a USA Swimming Foundation study that states that 64 per cent of African-American children don't know how to swim."
Manuel admitted in her blog that she had to do research in order find other black Olympic medalists. While she came across Maritza McClendon and Cullen Jones, who became her inspirations, she was puzzled by the lack of interest African-Americans had in swimming.
Miriam Lynch of Diversity in Aquatics, an organization that educates and promotes aquatic activities in underrepresented groups, told the New York Times that there's a general fear of swimming among the African-American community. This fear dates back to slavery and segregation in the U.S.
It is because of discrimination and segregation that swimming never became a part of African-American recreational culture.
Jeff Wiltse, a history professor at the University of Montana, explained this to The Root, saying, "It is because of discrimination and segregation that swimming never became a part of African-American recreational culture."
Because African-Americans did not have the same access to swimming pools or beaches, they never learned to swim. Thus, a fear of swimming among the community eventually emerged, as well as the myth that "black folk don't swim."
Manuel now hopes that her accomplishments in swimming will inspire other African-American children to get involved in the sport.
"There are more African-American swimmers than when I first started in the sport and if we want more diversity in the water, it starts with learning how to swim," she wrote.
While Manuel recognizes that not everyone can afford swim lessons, she noted that programs like USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash initiative offer low cost or free lessons to children. She also stressed that swim lessons reduce the risk of drowning by 88 per cent.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children aged five to 19 drown at a rate 5.5 times higher than white children. With shocking statistics like that, it's hard to argue against enrolling children in swimming lessons.
"Swimming is a rewarding sport that should never be overlooked because of existing stereotypes based on skin colour," Manuel concluded. "My hope is that I'm an inspiration to get out there and try swimming."
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