By Lewis Gould
USA gymnastics superstar Simone Biles has been a social butterfly at her first Olympics, mixing and making new friends with competitors from around the world.
Yet the photograph she posted with Simone Manuel yesterday likely has more significance than most, for two athletes who made their mark on the Games just hours apart and delighted the nation in the process.
“Simone Biles and me are practically the same person,” Manuel said. “I met her a year ago, and we became great friends. We have hung out a couple of times. We are both excited to be here and now we are both taking gold medals home.”
Manuel won gold — sharing first place with Penny Oleksiak of Canada — in the women’s 100-meter freestyle at the Olympic Aquatics Center on Thursday night, to become the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic swimming title.
It came just hours after Biles had dominated the competition in the women’s all-around event and entered the conversation of whether she is the greatest gymnast of all time.
“When we are in the same room it is very difficult to have a conversation because we don’t know who is talking to which Simone,” Manuel said. But the pair share more than just a name. Both hail from Houston, and both already have experienced difficulty on account of their race.
Biles has been targeted because of a combination of her color and her success. When she became the first black gymnastics world champion in 2013, Carlotta Ferlito, an Italian gymnast, told a journalist that she had joked with a friend that they should “also paint our skin black, so then we could win, too.”
After her win, Manuel shared a sentiment that came unscripted, straight from the heart, yet could not have delivered a more perfect message.
She spoke of the difficulty in being a rare black swimmer on the American team, how it has attracted positive attention but at the same time brought a burden. Manuel trains as hard as any world-class swimmer, yet spoke of the discomfort at the implied perception that acknowledging her groundbreaking achievement also singled her out.
After giving sobering and mature remarks on the significance of her win in the light of the current state of racial relations in America, she said she hoped to one day simply be known for her own efforts, and not as “the black swimmer.”
In gymnastics, Gabby Douglas became the first African-American to win the Olympic all-around in 2012. But her victory was the culmination of several cycles’ worth of success by black gymnasts, including Dominique Dawes, Betty Okino and Tasha Schwikert. That, combined with the remarkable performance of Biles, will likely and hopefully help balance the numbers.
In just over a week Biles and Manuel will be headed home, both hailed as trailblazers and more famous than they could ever have imagined.
Biles said earlier in the event that Manuel was “an awesome person,” and it appears to be a friendship to last. Biles’ selfie was short on words, but said everything it needed to.
It read: “Simone x 2” and a symbol of a heart. And a gold medal.