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Olympian Simone Manuel made history, raised awareness for overtraining syndrome. Now she's swimming for herself

(Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)
(Moe Haidar/Yahoo Sports)

February marks the celebration of Black History Month. This year’s theme — according to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History — is “Resistance.” Yahoo Sports will feature a series of stories highlighting the achievements of pioneering African Americans whose very being is a form of resistance against the status quo in their respective fields.

Simone Manuel describes the moment she became the first Black woman to win an individual Olympic swimming gold medal in a way that illustrates a struggle of her career — one that she’s combatting with a fresh start in the sport.

“I guess I have to say Rio gold,” she told Yahoo Sports when asked to choose her favorite career moment. “That's what people know me the most for, so I feel like I kind of have to answer that way.” The 26-year-old has won four other Olympic medals, in addition to being a 14-time NCAA champion and 16-time World Championships medalist — 11 of them gold.

Her reply reflects a pressure to meet the expectations of people who may not fully understand her experience. That phenomenon is a major theme of “Head Above Water,” the documentary Manuel released in January.

The project details the moments leading up to and following Manuel’s diagnosis with overtraining syndrome ahead of the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympics. The rarely diagnosed response occurs when an athlete isn't given adequate recovery after repetitive intense training and can include fatigue, declining performance and mood changes.

"It's really hard to be vulnerable when your story can sometimes be discredited or dismissed. And so I was really afraid of that when putting this out," Manuel told Yahoo Sports.

Manuel, 26, started feeling off in January of 2021. Her coach at the time, Greg Meehan, didn't adjust her training program. By March, her symptoms — including a loss of appetite, irritability, difficulty completing "easy" workouts and a spiking heart rate even at rest — became too much to ignore.

"The first time I'd heard of [overtraining syndrome] was when the doctor said it," Manuel told Yahoo Sports. She was prescribed a three-week break from the pool, with Olympic trials just months away.

In June, after she spent five years preparing to defend her historic Olympic 100-meter freestyle title, she finished 0.02 seconds away from making the US team in the event.

She revealed her diagnosis in an emotional news conference after the race, sharing that the pandemic, and racial trauma and unrest in 2020 in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, compounded her stress.

“People didn’t believe that I actually was overtrained,” Manuel said in the documentary produced by TOGETHXR, a media company she co-founded with fellow USA Olympic gold medalists Alex Morgan, Sue Bird and Chloe Kim.

“People said that I was distracted by all my other sponsor obligations, and that’s why I didn’t perform well. That I became lazy and my success went to my head,” Manuel said.

Still, Manuel qualified for the Olympic 50m free. In Tokyo, she qualified for the semifinals in the 11th position but wasn’t able to make the final. Meehan, who was the head coach for Team USA, selected her for the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay anyway. The move allowed her to contribute an anchor leg that helped the team win bronze.

When Manuel won gold in 2016, her time also set an Olympic record and an American record. She expressed the feeling of "swimming with the weight of the Black community" on her shoulders. Her time in Tokyo presented a new iteration of a familiar pressure to be great in and out of the pool. Only this time, she had to learn to cope with the limitations that overtraining syndrome put on her performance.

An admittedly private person, Manuel took time away from the pool and moved on with a new coach. When she reflects on that time, she notes that getting to know herself and being vulnerable made all the difference.

"Sometimes I push myself harder than I need to. And so for me, I've learned that that strength is really great, but more than anything, it's important to rest and take care of yourself," Manuel told Yahoo Sports.

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 31: Simone Manuel of Team United States reacts after tying for sixth in the Women's 50m Freestyle Semifinal 2 at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Simone Manuel of Team United States smiled through an isolating struggle during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Simone Manuel takes new approach to familiar issue

In her documentary, Manuel's mother Sharron recalled how her daughter flew back from the difficult Tokyo experience on her 25th birthday. In an attempt not to remind Simone of what she wasn't able to accomplish, Sharron hid any Olympic memorabilia from sight.

"It's a lonely place when no one actually really understands what you're going through mentally and physically," Manuel told Yahoo Sports.

Manuel spent six months away from training between her hometown of Houston and California, where she was living at the time. The choice to rest was distinctly different from her post-Rio experience, when she threw herself into training, and philanthropic and advocacy efforts.

Between enjoying her mother's cooking and spending time with her fiancé and two brothers, Manuel was reminded of something.

"What's important to me is who I am and who my truth is. I think that really elevates me mentally because obviously swimming is something I do, but it's not who I am," she told Yahoo Sports. "Even through those trials and tribulations, it's really nice to kind of take a step back from what you're dealing with and just take care of yourself as a person."

When Manuel turned 26 in August, things couldn't have been more different from the previous year. Once heavy with emotions as she unpacked her bags from the Tokyo Olympics, Manuel found herself preparing to pack up and move with excitement. The former Stanford Cardinal left California to join the Arizona State pro group and work primarily with Bob Bowman, Michael Phelps' longtime coach.

After her reset, It seems possible that Manuel could celebrate her 28th birthday with fond memories of the 2024 Olympics. But she's not stressing about the long road ahead. Her documentary starts with recollections of her youth, being the only Black girl at the pool and dealing with racist comments. It ends with her hopes for the future.

“I just want to swim with no pressure or expectations from anybody, even myself. Which I don’t know what that looks like, but I think that’s what’s next for me and that’s definitely going to be the focus: falling back in love with this sport and just being happy doing it."

In an interview with Yahoo Sports, she admitted the resolution was easier said than done, but she works at it every day. She returned to competition at the Knoxville Pro Swim Series in January, placing third in the 50m free. Fittingly, Manuel's documentary was released during the weekend of her return to competition.

The film was met with messages of support, with many athletes telling Manuel that her story helped them realize they had been overtrained. She gave advice and reveled in the newfound community. The complex disorder is most common in endurance sports, but not well-researched enough for consistent diagnoses. It's estimated to impact 30-40% of high level athletes across all sports.

"I kind of hate to admit this," Manuel told Yahoo Sports. "Maybe it is worth it to be a little more vulnerable with people, to not worry too much about the negative comments and focus on the people whose lives you actually might be touching and making their life a little better."

Now, she reflects on the 2016 version of herself who felt the pressure of representing and advocating for the Black community and beyond.

"I think that my existence in the sport kind of provides a place where that weight is laid on me. I think for me, it's really about trying to not put that pressure on myself to feel like I need to be all things to all people, that I need to be the sole contributor to why inclusion and equality is important in the sport of swimming," Manuel told Yahoo Sports.

"Obviously those are my ultimate goals outside of the pool," she clarified. "I think that at times I kind of swam for other people, to inspire other people, to get more people in the sport of swimming. I think it's more important right now for me to swim for Simone. And everything else will take care of itself."