Olympic trials stunner: Simone Manuel won't defend her historic gold medal in Tokyo after health struggles

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OMAHA, NEBRASKA - JUNE 17: Simone Manuel of the United States reacts after competing in a preliminary heat for the Women’s 100m freestyle during Day Five of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at CHI Health Center on June 17, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Simone Manuel swam fast enough at prelims to make the semifinals at U.S. Olympic swimming trials, but failed to make it to Friday night's final in Omaha. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Simone Manuel, the first Black woman to win an individual swimming gold medal at the Olympics, won't get a chance to defend that historic medal in Tokyo.

Manuel, one of stars of Team USA in 2016, failed to make the 100-meter freestyle finals at U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha on Thursday night, five years after winning the event in Rio de Janeiro.

The 24-year-old Texan finished ninth in the semis, 0.02 seconds behind the eighth-place finisher. Manuel stood poolside, biting the strap of her goggles, as she realized that her time wouldn't be good enough to reach Friday's eight-woman final.

She still has a chance to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics. She'll swim the 50-meter freestyle this weekend, an event in which she holds the American record. She won silver in it five years ago in Rio.

But, as Manuel revealed through tears Thursday night, she isn't the same swimmer she was in 2016; nor the same as when she won five gold medals at world championships in 2017, and then four golds and three silvers at worlds in 2019. Throughout 2021, she's been struggling.

Manuel opens up about mental, physical health struggles

At an emotional post-race news conference, Manuel detailed the difficult year that led to Thursday's disappointment. She revealed for the first time that she was diagnosed with "overtraining syndrome" in March, a condition she'd never heard of until then. Symptoms first arose in January, then escalated. She spent three weeks away from the pool, away from workouts of any kind, just two months before trials.

"It was kind of one of those bittersweet moments where my body wasn't doing what I knew it was capable of," she said.

Her exhaustion, she explained, was both mental and physical. She dealt with muscle soreness, insomnia, an elevated heart rate, anxiety and depression. She struggled to eat at times. She'd get "gassed" just climbing stairs. She loves the sport of swimming, but reached a point where she didn't even want to practice.

The pandemic, she said, and the isolation it required, might have contributed to all of this.

"Being a Black person in America played a part in it" too, she said. "This last year for the Black community has been brutal, and I can't say that that wasn't something that I saw. It's not something I can ignore. It was just another factor that can influence you mentally in a draining way.” As one of the few elite Black swimmers, she was often asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, about racism, about the sport's lack of diversity; far more often than her white peers were.

She cried at times as she spoke about the difficulties. She called it her "biggest fight." She's consulted with doctors. She thinks she'll get back to her best, but for now ...

"Things still feel hard," she said of her return to swimming.

Manuel's path ahead

From the outside, to those who didn't know about the struggles, her elimination on Thursday was shocking. She swam her 100 free semifinal, the first of two heats, in 54.17 seconds, more than two full seconds slower than her American record time of 52.04.

Manuel's outlook, though, was different.

"This was the first time I showed up to a meet and before I even dove in to race, I was proud of myself," she said. "I think that's a big step."

She still plans to swim the 50. Prelims are Saturday morning, semifinals Saturday night, and the final Sunday night.

"This isn't the last time you're going to see me," Manuel promised at the news conference. "And this isn't the last time I'm going to do something great in the pool."

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