After grueling year, Simone Manuel wins 50-meter freestyle to make U.S. Olympic team

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Simone Manuel reacts after competing in the Women's 50m freestyle final.
Simone Manuel reacts after competing in the women's 50-meter freestyle final at the Olympic trials Sunday in Omaha. (Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

Relief poured out the moment Simone Manuel touched the wall and the result flashed on the scoreboard above the pool at the CHI Health Center.

After a six-month stretch that challenged her body and mind, Manuel won the 50-meter freestyle Sunday night at the U.S. Olympic swimming trials in her final chance to qualify for next month’s Tokyo Games.

“Today may have been the longest day of my life,” Manuel said. “That 50 may have been the longest 50 of my life. I’m just glad to have it over.”

The 24-year-old finished in 24.29 seconds, one-hundredth of a second faster than Abbey Weitzeil.

After the race, Weitzeil hurled herself over the lane line and bear-hugged Manuel. She looked up at the scoreboard, closed her eyes, dunked her head in the water, rubbed her face and slapped the water in celebration. The crowd responded with one of the loudest and longest cheers of the eight-night trials.

“The last week and months have been really hard,” Manuel said.

Five years ago, Manuel became the first Black female swimmer to win an individual gold medal at the Olympics after tying for first in the 100 freestyle in Rio de Janeiro. She went on to establish herself as one of the biggest names in swimming, winning seven medals, the most ever by a woman, at the world championships in 2019.

But Manuel failed to qualify for the 100 freestyle final Thursday, placing ninth in the semifinals in an event where she holds the American record. At an emotional news conference afterward, she revealed she had been diagnosed with overtraining syndrome earlier this year. The condition led to problems like a rapid heartbeat, sore muscles after performing basic tasks, and the inability to get through normal workouts.

“I'm so proud of Simone and how she has handled herself, not just this week but over the last several months, really just the last year,” said Katie Ledecky, Manuel’s pandemic training partner and teammate during their days at Stanford.

Manuel had to take three weeks away from the pool in March and April, an eternity for a swimmer training for the Olympics.

“It was an uphill climb,” Manuel said of her return. “Once I got back in the water, some days were good, some days weren't great. I could go on and on, but to sit here and even do what I did and to be at this meet is something that I can't take lightly.”

The difficult journey made the victory Sunday night even sweeter.

“More than anything,” Manuel said, “I’m relieved.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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