This year’s Olympics which takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil features many incredible athletes that represent the USA in many sports. The latest in the headlines is Simone Manuel who made history as the first African-American woman to win the gold medal in Olympic swimming.
“She tied with fellow Olympian Penny Oleksiak of Canada with the fastest time of 52.70 seconds” as reported by the New York Times. Manuel’s Gold Medal victory breaks the stereotype that African- Americans can’t swim and it serves as a major obstacle to overcome for a sport that is associated with its racial history.
In this country, people often joke about the fact that African- Americans can’t swim. However, this is no laughing matter. According to a 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 70% of African-Americans cannot swim. There are many factors that affect this; the lack of access to public pools in the urban community, fears of death in the water and the segregation history behind swimming. In addition, another known factor for this is that the older generation who grew up during the period of segregation such as our grandparents did not teach their family members how to swim. The reason for that is that they themselves did not get an opportunity to learn because of the simple fact that blacks were not allowed to partake in this activity in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
According to Dr. Jeff Wiltse the author of “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America”, he states that “during the 1920s and 1930s, and it really continuing on even further up from there, there were racist assumptions that black Americans were dirtier than whites, that they were more likely to be infected by communicable diseases. And so, in part, the push for racial segregation and racial exclusion was for white swimmers to avoid being infected by the supposed “dirtiness” of black Americans.” During this time, based on those assumptions alone it made it difficult for black swimmers to join their white peers in the water. Young African- Americans back then were often faced with violence by whites just for attempting to get in the pool.
Manuel’s victory opens the door to future African- American women who are interested in the sport. She serves as a huge inspiration to young black children who aspire to be a swimmer one day. After her epic win she responds with this statement to the reporter during an interview:
“I definitely think it raises some awareness and will get them inspired,” Manuel, 20, said about the significance of her accomplishment. “I mean, 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.”
Simone Manuel’s triumph serves as a huge accomplishment for African-Americans around the country. It is truly an epic win because of the racial stigma associated with swimming. Overcoming those stereotypes and bypassing its unpleasant history takes thick skin, endurance and strength.