Golub: Why Olympic swimming matters

April 29, 2019, 12:04 a.m.

I got to listen to Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel talk with Julie Foudy last week for the recording of Foudy’s Laughter Permitted podcast. All three of them (if you don’t know who Foudy is shame on you, but also shame on me because I didn’t know either — she’s a Stanford alumna and former U.S. national team soccer standout) shared funny and endearing stories from their athletic careers. The one who stood out to me most, though, was Simone Manuel. She got a little overshadowed by Katie’s star power, which is understandable. But I think she made the most important point of the whole conversation.

Manuel, of course, is the first black female swimmer to win an individual medal in swimming.  Hers is a triumph of talent over odds, of strength over stereotype. Black kids, society tells us, are supposed to dip their toes in the pool and then jump out scared. Manuel dunked her whole body in and jumped out with some gold hardware. She was a breakout star of the Rio Olympics and now, a few NCAA titles later with the new status of “professional,” is solidifying her spot in the national sports culture hierarchy. Ledecky might get more hype than the rest of the team combined, but Manuel is the one to kick odds to the curb while churning her way to a new records and new understandings of what a champion swimmer looks like.

During the podcast Foudy asked her what it meant for her to be that first black female swimmer to win. I thought to myself, “That’s a dumb question, how is she supposed to answer it?” How could she even understand the magnitude of that accomplishment? How could anyone? In response, Manuel talked about swimming in general. She shared stories of fans modeling themselves after her, of parents telling her their daughters want to be the next Simone Manuel’s. She told the audience about how she now represented swimming to so many people. Then came the statistics. I don’t remember the numbers exactly — something like 60 percent of Black kids can’t swim. Then about 50 percent for Latinx kids and 40 percent for White kids. Those numbers are big. I didn’t realize it while she shared them, but I realize it now.

Manuel explained how impactful she was, thanks both to her Olympic-hype star power and her deliberate work to influence people. Thanks to her success in the pool, she has been able to get kids to learn how to swim regardless, or perhaps because of, their status as minorities. She is a gamechanger, literally, welcoming a whole new population of competitors into her sport.

It was a nice, heartwarming answer that the audience met with happy applause. It was cool to hear. But I was left wondering: Why did she talk about swimming in general? Foudy asked her a question about her status at the best of the best at the highest level of competition in her sport.  She answered by talking about kids gaining a basic life skill. I felt like Manuel had wandered off course. In reality, I was the one with my eyes closed.

Like I said before, those statistics are huge. When 60 percent of black kids can’t swim, it doesn’t just mean that the pool of potential Olympic swimmers is smaller. It doesn’t even mean only that black kids aren’t able to participate in high school sports. It means that more than half of black kids in the U.S. aren’t able to participate in a basic recreational activity. Swimming isn’t just a sport; it’s a core element of life for millions of people. All those kids of color that can’t swim are being denied the full experience of life. They lack a fundamental life skill.

When Manuel explained the impact of her winning gold medals, she realized that, by virtue of excelling in a sport that exceeds the bounds of sports, she is more than an athletic role model. She is a force for social change. It’s rare that sports success itself, as opposed to the power or influence that it generates, makes the world a better place. Simone Manuel is a rare athlete.

Contact Jack Golub at golubj ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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