Can Simone Manuel Return to Apex of American Sprinting, Reach Third Olympics?

Simone Manuel -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Can Simone Manuel Return to Apex of American Sprinting, Reach Third Olympics?

Since the 1984 Olympics when Nancy Hogshead and Carrie Steinseifer tied for gold in the 100 freestyle, only one American woman has reached the top of the podium — and she, too, finished in a tie for gold. At the 2016 Games, Simone Manuel and Canada’s Penny Oleksiak each touched in 52.70 to pull off a stunner over Australian favorite and then-world-record holder Cate Campbell. And Manuel proved her win in Rio de Janeiro was no fluke by backing it up with consecutive world-title wins, both in upset fashion.

But when Manuel qualified for her second Olympics in 2021, after the Tokyo Games were delayed one year by the COVID-19 pandemic, she was unable to capture her top form. After missing the 100 free final at the U.S. Olympic Trials, Manuel revealed she had been diagnosed with overtraining syndrome. She ended up getting onto the Olympic team as the Trials runnerup in the 50 free, and she ended up earning a bronze medal in Tokyo as a prelims relay swimmer.

Following Tokyo, Manuel took a one-year hiatus from the sport before resurfacing at Arizona State University in the sprint group under associate head coach Herbie Behm. During the 2023-24 season, Manuel competed at a handful of top-level meets, including stops on USA Swimming’s Pro Swim Series circuit, but she chose to sit out U.S. Nationals in late June, missing out on a chance to qualify for her fifth World Championships team.

When the entries for Nationals came out, Manuel posted on social media, “I can confidently say that I’ve made great progress this year.” She added, “I firmly believe that this sacrifice is an investment for the future” before indicating her total focus on the following year’s Olympic Trials.

Just over a month later, Manuel concluded her summer season at the TYR Pro Championships by finishing second in the 50 free at 25.05 and third in the 100 free at 54.21. She was more than one second off her American record over one lap (23.97) and two seconds behind her mark in the 100 free (52.04), but the times were a solid stepping-stone. In the 100-meter event, where six swimmers are typically selected onto major international teams for relay purposes, Manuel’s time was just hundredths off what it took to qualify for the A-final at Nationals.

In the months since, Manuel has only raced once, as an exhibition swimmer at Arizona State’s dual meet against UNLV. She clocked 47.37 in the 100 free and 1:43.15, perfectly solid in-season marks even if she was well off her lifetime bests from her college days at Stanford. Now comes the next test, with Manuel racing the majority of the country’s best sprinters at the U.S. Open in Greensboro, N.C.

Her competition in Greensboro includes five of the six women who joined Manuel on the U.S. women’s 400 free relay team in Tokyo: Abbey WeitzeilErika BrownNatalie HindsOlivia Smoliga and Catie Deloof. Since Manuel’s last international appearance, Torri HuskeClaire CurzanKate Douglass and Gretchen Walsh have all taken turns in major roles for the U.S. women in the sprint events. And to top it off, 100 free Olympic silver medalist and all-time No. 2 performer Siobhan Haughey will be competing against her main U.S. rivals this weekend.

In Manuel’s career, she has raced on the finals squad for the U.S. women’s 400 free relay on four occasions, and only once, at the 2017 World Championships, have the Americans reached the gold-medal podium. At this point, catching an Australian team led by Mollie O’CallaghanShayna Jack and 100 free Olympic champion Emma McKeon looks like a major longshot, but the American women have shown the speed and depth necessary to become the world’s clear No. 2 team.

How Manuel could factor into this mix, let alone the quest for individual swims at the Olympics, remains to be seen after a younger generation of Americans have made real strides over the past two years. But we’ll get a real sense of Manuel’s progress this weekend.

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