OMAHA — Simone Manuel squinted at the scoreboard on Thursday night and did the simple math. She had finished fourth in the first of two semifinals of her signature event, the 100-meter freestyle, where she owns six of the seven fastest swims by an American woman.
Scanning the results of the second semifinal while standing on the deck, she counted the times that were faster than hers. There were five, which left Manuel one spot shy of qualifying for the final from which the Olympic qualifiers will be selected for the individual event and the 4 x 100 freestyle relay.
If one of the indelible images from the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was Manuel’s shocked expression upon realizing she had tied for first in the 100-meter freestyle to become the first Black female swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold, one of the lasting images of this U.S. Olympic trials will be her resigned look when her ninth-place finish became official.
She now has one more shot at qualifying for the team, in the 50-meter freestyle, with the preliminary races Saturday. She was the Olympic silver medalist in the event in 2016.
After the 100-meter race Thursday, Manuel, 24, spoke about being diagnosed in March with overtraining syndrome. “It has not been easy by any stretch,” said Manuel, who added that she has struggled to manage the symptoms, which include muscle soreness, weight loss, lack of appetite, fatigue, a decline in sports performance, prolonged recovery time and an elevated heart rate at rest and while exercising.
“During this process, I definitely was depressed,” Manuel said. “I isolated myself from my family.”
After curtailing her training for two weeks without any significant improvement, she took three weeks completely off from swimming, returning to the water in mid-April. But she was never able to regain her consistency in training.
“I did everything I possibly could have done to set myself up to be my very best at this meet,” Manuel said.
“I’m going to go for it,” she said. “I don’t think that I would have showed up to trials if I didn’t feel like I had any reason to be here.”
She added, “I’m just hopeful.”
But the easy speed that she relies on in the 100 was not there in the semifinal. Manuel’s time of 54 minutes 17 seconds was .02-second slower than the eighth-place time posted by Erika Brown, who finished fifth in the second semifinal. Natalie Hinds and Olivia Smoliga were the top qualifiers, both clocking 53.55.
Manuel swam a 52.70 to tie for the gold in Rio with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak and lowered the American record to 52.04 at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, on her way to winning a record seven medals, including four golds.
Meeting with reporters roughly an hour after her race, Manuel spent 25 minutes surfing a wave of emotions: tearful, resigned, resolute. She spoke about the frustrations of seeing physical improvements one day and then growing winded climbing the stairs at the Stanford pool the next.
She also touched on the mental toll of being a Black person during a year of racial unrest; an athlete dealing with a one-year postponement of the Olympics and a high-performing machine plagued by physical struggles that began in January and gradually worsened.
“I do think that being a Black person in America played a part in it,” Manuel said. “The last year for the Black community has been brutal, and I can’t say 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.”
Manuel acknowledged that she is a perfectionist and can be hard on herself, often finding fault with even her greatest feats. Her body’s betrayal forced her to be kinder to herself and accept, however grudgingly, that whatever the outcome, her legacy as a performer and her worth as a person were secure.
“I’m someone where I accomplish something, I’m always looking forward to the next thing,” Manuel said. “I don’t feel like sometimes I always sit back and appreciate what I have done. This was the first time I have shown up to a meet and before I dove in to do a race I was proud of myself, and I think that’s a big step.”
Five days earlier, Manuel had taken part in a news conference with her Stanford teammate Katie Ledecky and their coach Greg Meehan. She said she was excited to race while alluding to challenges, without elaborating, that she has faced this year.
Manuel said she refrained from expanding on her struggles at the time because she was focusing on a positive outcome. “I was just telling myself to believe, to believe in my abilities and my capabilities to go out there and race,” she said.
She was trying to ignore the nagging voice in her head — “the realistic voice” is how Manuel described it — that she couldn’t expect given the health-related holes in her preparation.
“I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me,” Manuel said. “I still don’t.”
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