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Simone Manuel Wins Olympic Gold. That's A Really Big Deal

Simone Manuel is one of the best swimmers in the world. But even in 2016, there are very few professional swimmers who look like her.
Clive Rose
Getty Images
Simone Manuel is one of the best swimmers in the world. But even in 2016, there are very few professional swimmers who look like her.

Thursday night in Rio, for the first time in history, a black woman won an individual swimming medal in the Olympics. Simone Manuel, a 20-year-old from Sugar Land, Texas, tied for the gold medal in the women's 100-meter freestyle with an Olympic record time of 52.70 seconds.

After winning, Manuel said, "The gold medal wasn't just for me. It was for people that came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport. For people who believe that they can't do it. I hope I'm an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. You might be pretty good at it."

It's an amazing accomplishment when anyone competes — let alone medals — at the Olympics. But there is a particular, fraught history that follows black Americans and swimming, which Manuel may have been alluding to in her comments.

Many Americans are familiar with the stereotype that black people can't swim. That stereotype does reflect some troubling stats. According to the Centers for Disease Control and prevention, in the United States, a black 11-year-old is 10 times as likely to drown in a swimming pool as a white 11-year-old. And as of 2010, around 70 percent of African-Americans said they couldn't swim, compared with some 40 percent of white folks.

Even some of today's best black swimmers aren't far removed from this reality. Cullen Jones is one of the fastest swimmers in the world. He has won three Olympic medals (two silver and one gold) and holds the American record in the 50-meter freestyle. But Jones' foray into swimming came as a result of a near-disaster. When he was 5 years old, Jones almost drowned at a water park. His mother, Debra, watched in fear — she couldn't swim either and was unable to help her son when he fell out of his inner tube.

After that, Cullen began taking swimming lessons; now, he says he feels most at home in the water. He has gone on to do some activism around black folks and swimming, encouraging diversity in the pool and increased swimming education. But many people never get that chance.

One study shows that, paradoxically, fear of drowning is the No. 1 reason African-Americans don't learn how to swim.

These disparities don't come from nowhere. The U.S. has a long history of keeping black folk out of swimming pools and away from public beaches. Over at Grist, Brentin Mock has written about ways black folks were prevented from swimming in New Orleans — he writes that in the 1930s, the city "began draining swamps around Lake Pontchartrain to create the whites-only Pontchartrain Beach." A decade later, about 15 black children were drowning in New Orleans every summer.

Stuff like this wasn't happening just in the South. Around the same time, pools in cities around the country were becoming officially racially segregated. In 2008, Jeff Wilste, the author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, talked to NPR's Rachel Martin about how "black Americans were typically relegated, if a pool was provided at all, to a small indoor pool that wasn't nearly as appealing as the large, outdoor resort pools that were provided for whites." Slowly and methodically, black people were implicitly discouraged from engaging in water sports and learning how to swim.

That's why, when Manuel won gold Thursday night, she wasn't just an athlete excelling at her sport. She was a symbol for what should have been self-evident all along: Swimming is for everyone.

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Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.