By J. Coyden Palmer, Chicago Crusader
You can expect the name Simone to become the most popular name among African American baby girls over the next few years after Simone Biles (gymnastics) and Simone Manuel (swimming) made history within hours of each other at the Summer Olympics in Brazil by winning Gold medals in their sports. Biles, the 19 year-old powerhouse, who is being called the greatest gymnast of all time, won the all-around title over her teammate Aly Raisman. Meanwhile, Manuel (Sugarland, Texas) came from behind in the 100m freestyle to tie Penny Oleksiak of Canada for first place.
The wins by both women are expected to have a large impact on the African American community because both gymnastics and swimming are underrepresented with Blacks in the sport. Biles became the first Black female gymnast to win gold in her sport since Dominique Dawes in 1996, when she was a part of the “Magnificent Seven” team that came away with the team title in Atlanta. But Biles still has a chance to win at least three other gold medals in Brazil, as she is the favorite in the floor routine, vault and balance beam events that will take place in the coming days.
There were some nervous moments for Biles though in the individual competition. After two rotations she was trailing Aliya Mustafina. But Biles two strongest events were in her final rotations. After posted a respectable score on the beam to take the lead back and then followed with a nearly flawless floor routine that was more of a coronation than a competition. Biles said afterward the win was a culmination of years of hard work.
“I had to sacrifice a lot,” she said. “I missed all of the proms, homecoming dances, going to football games when I was in high school. You have to put in 10 to 12 hour days at the gym even when you are dead tired. I want to thank everyone who has supported me over the years.”
For Manuel, the look of pure shock on her face when she looked up at the board in Rio to see she had set a new Olympic Record of 52.70 and won her second medal of the games is something Black Americans will never forget. The 20 year-old, who took a year off from her studies at Stanford to concentrate on the Olympics, said she fully understands the impact her win.
“This medal is not just for me. It’s for a whole bunch of people who came before me and were an inspiration. And it’s for all of the people who will come after me and doubt if they can do it. I just want to be an inspiration to others and show them that you can do it,” Manuel said after the race.
Like Biles, Manuel will have a chance to add to her gold and the silver medal she won earlier in the week as part of the 4×100 relay team. She will be competing in the 50m freestyle heats on Aug 12, with a good chance of medaling in that event over the weekend.
Cullen Jones, a two-time Olympian who took home two gold and two silver medals from the games in 2008 and 2012 as part of the men’s relay teams, said Manuel’s accomplishment is another step in the right direction. Jones has been a friend of Crusader since coming to Chicago in 2009 when he was teaching Black youth how to swim at Washington Park. Jones said Manuel and Lia Neal, another Black female swimmer at the Olympics, are continuing the work he and others started to get more African Americans involved in the sport.
“It’s amazing and I’m so proud of her,” Jones said. “Our main goal is to shatter the myth that Black people don’t swim. Our secondary goals are to get more Blacks into competitive swimming. What Simone has done is historic and gives us the best publicity we could have ever had.”