For millions of Americans who followed the Tokyo Olympics last year, Simone Manuel went from being the swimmer known as “Swimone” to the athlete who was considered “the other Simone.”
While gymnast Simone Biles stirred controversy in the way she handled her mental health struggles, Manuel what going through an analogous uphill battle that she handled in a somewhat different way.
It’s the aftermath of her competitive story that’s especially fascinating, but to get there we have to do a short review of her career as a star Olympic swimmer.
Swimming to Stardom
Manuel hails from Texas, and her prowess as a swimmer quickly became apparent. She was born in 1996, but she tried out for the Olympic swim team in 2012 at the tender age of 16.
But she wasn’t just an attractive young athlete. When the time came for her to pick a college, she chose Stanford, where she joined fellow future Olympian Katie Ladecky.
Olympic success in the pool soon followed. Manuel became the first black woman to win a gold medal in an individual swim event, and she earned several other medals in team events during the Rio Olympics in 2016.
She went into the Tokyo Olympics bearing the weight of high expectations, and that’s where her story gets truly interesting.
An Olympic Setback
Commentators and fans alike reacted with shock when Manuel lost at the Olympic swim trials last year. Soon later, she revealed that part of the reason for her failure was due to training burnout, which caused a variety of symptoms that included anxiety, depression, increased heart rate, and muscle soreness.
She did help win his team bronze in Tokyo, but her results were considered very disappointing. Like Biles, she did become a champion for mental health issues after her failure, and she also snapped back at the media when they pressed her immediately after her poor performance in Tokyo.
Overall, Manuel has been more gracious in explaining her failures than Biles.
Critics have accused athletes like her and Biles of wanting to have her cake and eat it, too-i.e., they’re not shy about refusing to provide media access when it suits them, but they welcome the publicity when it allows them to capitalize on lucrative sponsorships and presenting themselves as likable public figures.
What is Simone Manuel Doing Now?
Manuel still seems to be sorting things out following her issues in Tokyo. Doctors told her to take a two-month break after Tokyo to heal her body, and for the first time since 2012 she won’t be on the US national team.
Manuel has said she intends to continue to compete into her thirties, and she has talked vaguely about continuing her Olympic career, but she hasn’t said exactly when she’ll be competing. Even at the tender age of 25, she seems to have realized that she can’t push her body to the breaking point the way she did as a younger athlete.
Her most recent accomplishment is tangentially related to her swimming career, but it’s noteworthy nonetheless. She was recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 list, which is a landmark achievement for a black female athlete.
Manuel’s net worth of $3 million is impressive, and she seems to be spreading her wings in other directions in the business world as well. She’s also one of the co-founders of Togethxr, a women’s media company.
The endorsement deal she signed back with TYR back in 2018 included an inclusion rider in which the company has to emphasize diversity in their hiring and business practices.
Manuel’s accomplishments as a businessperson and a woman of color are impressive, and her willingness to speak out about mental health and social justice issues is even more admirable.
Her future success in the business world seems assured, but ultimately Manuel’s ability to maintain her status as a celebrity athlete will depend on her success in the pool. She hasn’t set a date for her return, and all eyes will be on Simone Manuel to see if she signs up for an event or makes an effort to join the national team later this year.
As male swimmers such as Mark Spitz and Michael Phelps can attest, the window of fame for successful Olympic swimmers can close rapidly, and when that happens their window for commercial success often closes with it.
Manuel is part of a new generation of athletes that prioritizes mental health over the rigors of high-level competition, and it will be interesting to see where her choices related to that issue take her.