The first Black woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming, Simone Manuel stepped away from competition entirely in 2022.
The 26-year-old swimmer had been diagnosed with overtraining syndrome — also known as burnout — ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. She continued to compete, and though she failed to qualify in the 100-meter freestyle at the U.S. Olympic trials, she did qualify in the 50 free. Still, she knew some onlookers doubted her struggle.
“People didn’t believe that I actually was overtrained,” Manuel said in a new documentary produced by TOGETHXR. “People said that I was distracted by all my other sponsor obligations, and that’s why I didn’t perform well. That I became lazy and my success went to my head.
“It’s really hard to be vulnerable in that space because it’s so easy for people to say they don’t believe me. I don’t get the empathy or understanding that I deserve.”
She opened up about her diagnosis, and her decision to take a break from elite swimming, in the documentary. The release coincided with her return to competition at Knoxville Pro Swim, her first elite-level competition since the Tokyo Games. She placed third in the 50 free in her return.
Prior to her diagnosis, Manuel dealt with the pressures of Olympic preparation, the COVID-19 pandemic and the weight of expectation as a groundbreaking Black swimmer.
“My training was going pretty well until the pandemic hit,” Manuel said. “Pools got shut down fairly quickly just like everything else. What are we doing? What’s the solution? Are the Olympics happening? When is it going to happen?
“I think I had maybe two or three days off before we found that backyard pool, and I just continued to train.”
At the same time, she started to receive even more spotlight as a leading Black athlete.
“I was then being asked to speak on these panels: ‘How can we support our Black community?’ ‘How can we diversify the sport of swimming?’” she continued.
“Being an athlete who was trying to focus on the Olympics, it was my job to work and continue to train. But also then be asked to continue to put my emotions on the line for other people to somehow be entertained by it. It was just a really tough time for me. Because I was training so hard and never took a break, I think my body just ended up crashing.”
As someone who “has a high swimming IQ,” Manuel knew something was wrong with her swimming, she said. She first felt it in January 2021, and she brought her concern to her coach at the time. He was dismissive of her concerns, she said, telling her that she was training “really well.”
“My stroke wasn’t feeling the same. My rhythm was off,” she said. “And I remember having conversations with my coach and asking him, ‘Well, how do you think I’m training?’ ‘Oh, you’re training really well. This is the best training I’ve ever seen you have.’ And I’m like, ‘But my times are slower.’
“I wish I would have just told him, ‘No, I’m not going to come in.’”
By March 2021, she wasn’t able to compete in a full lineup of events. After a meet that month, a doctor diagnosed her with overtraining syndrome. Still, she kept training until her doctor mandated a break, or else she might not have been able to compete at the Olympic trials.
“It really was just about damage control,” she said. “I continued to train for a while per my coach’s instructions and my progress continued to decline.”
While Manuel wound up making the Olympic team, she described her experience in Tokyo as “not fun at all.” She says it was difficult watching people compete in the 100 free, the event in which she had won gold at the 2016 Olympics.
She placed 11th in the 50 free semifinals in Tokyo, falling short of a spot in the final race.
After her absence from the sport, she returns with a new outlook, though with her eyes still looking toward the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“Going into the next chapter of swimming would be trying to block out all the noise,” Manuel said. “I just want to swim with no pressure or expectations from anybody, even myself. Which I don’t know what that looks like, but I think that’s what’s next for me and that’s definitely going to be the focus: falling back in love with this sport and just being happy doing it.
“And then get back to competing on the highest level and hopefully winning some more medals.”