On Thursday (Aug. 11), American swimmer Simone Manuel made history. She became the first African-American woman to win an individual medal for swimming in the Olympics. And she used her gold-medal-winning moment to acknowledge the police brutality and race issues that persist in the US.
“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” Manuel told USA Today after the victory. “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.”
Someday soon, Manuel said, she hopes to be known for more than just her race.
“I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not ‘Simone, the black swimmer,'” she told US Olympics broadcaster NBC. “The title ‘black swimmer’ makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I’m not supposed to be able to break records, and that’s not true because I work just as hard as anybody else. I want to win just like everybody else.”
Throughout the Rio games, people in the US have looked to talented black athletes such as Manuel, tennis star Serena Williams, and gymnasts Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas as sources of healing and inspiration for the black community. Others have cautioned that their achievements—however positive and grand—cannot fix race relations.
And even as Americans of all races cheered the country’s diverse Olympics team, these days have also been filled with reminders that its race problem hasn’t been solved—including the the second anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and a devastating government report on racial disparities in urban policing.
Manuel said she sees this victory as still far bigger than she is. ”This medal is not just for me,” she said. “It’s for some of the African-Americans that came before me and have been inspirations and mentors to me. I hope that I can be an inspiration for others.”
One of those inspirations, Cullen Jones, a two-time gold medalist and the first African American to hold a world record in long-course swimming, sent his congratulations on Twitter after the race.