Two African-Americans sweep medals at NCAA swim championship
BY ELLIOTT ALMOND
SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS/TNS
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Simone Manuel was 11 years old when she got a glimpse of her country’s racial divide while standing on a pool deck in Sugar Land, Texas.
“(I’m) the only one of that color,” the Stanford swim star recalls thinking.
The realization not only put her in touch with her African-American heritage but gave her added motivation to chase swimming greatness.
Seven years later, Manuel has a platform to promote a national dialogue about minorities in swimming because of a ceiling-busting performance in March at the NCAA women’s championships.
Manuel, her Stanford teammate Lia Neal and Natalie Hinds of the University of Florida finished 1-2-3 in the 100-yard freestyle, respectively, the first time African-Americans swept the medals at an NCAA swim championship.
In a moment that crystallized the issue the way Tiger Woods did in golf and the Williams sisters have done in tennis, the Stanford swimmers hope to have a lasting imprint on their sport.
“It’s another step on the map,” said Manuel, a freshman who set the NCAA, American and U.S. open records with a winning time of 46.09 seconds.
Neal, 20, was second in 47.13, followed by Hinds in 47.24.
The women haven’t had much time to reflect on their achievement with a full summer of big meets at the Santa Clara Arena Pro Swim Series at the George F. Haines International Swim Center.
Manuel and Neal also are preparing for the World Championships next month in Russia, and Neal will swim at the World University Games in July in South Korea.
They and Hinds were joined in Santa Clara this week by African-American Olympic pioneers Anthony Ervin and Cullen Jones, providing an exclamation point on the growing numbers of talented minorities competing today.
“I hope this won’t be the first and last thing,” said Neal, whose father is African-American and mother Chinese-American.
Shaun Anderson, Norfolk State professor and co-founder of Diversity in Aquatics, sees it as just the beginning.
“I do believe fast swimming is very important for the next generation,” he said. “It helps dispels the myth Black people don’t swim or aren’t into aquatics.”
A University of Memphis study in 2010 found that nearly 70 percent of African-American children and nearly 60 percent of Hispanic/Latino children have low or no swim ability, compared to 40 percent of Whites.
Such statistics have led swim officials to outwardly recruit minorities. USA Swimming officials say African-American membership has grown by 55 percent in the past decade — 77 percent for Hispanic/Latinos in the same period.
Manuel and Neal are the latest Bay Area athletes to draw attention to a long-simmering issue.
In 1982, Stanford’s Chris Silva became the first African-American to make a U.S. national swim team.
In 1996, Stanford’s Byron Davis finished fourth at the U.S. Olympic trials, and a year later Cardinal teammate Sabir Muhammad became the first African-American to break a U.S. record.
Then came Cal’s Ervin, who in 2000 became the first African-American to make a U.S. Olympic swim team — and win a gold medal. Ervin returned to the sport a decade later, when he, Jones and Neal made the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. For the first time in history, the United States had a roster with more than one African-American.
The trio hopes to qualify for the Rio Games next summer along with Manuel and perhaps even more African-Americans. The results at the NCAA championships in North Carolina signaled the potential.
‘An uphill battle’
Jones, 31, was in a cinema when a friend sent a photo of the three women on the medal podium. Jones can’t remember the name of the movie but vividly recounted his emotions upon seeing the results.
“I cannot believe this has happened,” said Jones, a five-time Olympic medal winner.
Jones has spent the past decade promoting water safety in minority communities.
“You have to start off working with that culture where many believe they don’t know how to swim,” Jones said. “It is an uphill battle.”
Jones’ motivation stems from almost drowning at a water slide when he was 5. His parents enrolled him in swimming lessons after the incident, and Jones eventually competed at a New Jersey Jewish Community Center where he felt out of place.
‘Cool to be unique’
As that youngster back in Texas, Manuel remembers not always fitting in with teammates because of her African-American heritage. But it provided her mother with a teaching moment. Sherron and Simone Manuel searched the Internet when they got home from the pool one day.
What they found helped Simone, now 18, start to understand how stereotypes and misconceptions seep into facets of life in discouraging ways.
“I realized my stake in the sport,” she said. “It is cool to be unique, but I would like to have more people who are like me in swimming.”
Still, Sherron Manuel sensed her daughter’s discomfort when the child had asked about ethnicity.
“I could see she had the talent,” Sherron said. “I didn’t want her to quit.”
Manuel’s parents encouraged her to pursue whatever she loved despite the obstacles.
Neal didn’t experience feelings of isolation when starting to swim because she went to a pool two blocks from the family home in Brooklyn. She took lessons with classmates who were mostly Chinese from her Catholic school in Chinatown.
“I’ve never been impacted by an all-White sport,” said Neal, who speaks Mandarin. “I’ve always been around an eclectic group of people.”
The swimmers were thinking about racing — and not race — when competing at the collegiate championships in March. But they have embraced the situation.
“I’m not going to run away from it,” Manuel said. “I’m going to stand up and try to make a change.”