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; a high-performing athlete dealing with a one-year postponement of the Olympics and 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.”