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U.S. Swimmer Simone Manuel Wins Olympic Gold In Historic Race

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last night at the Rio Olympics, history was made.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: There's quite a few lining up now. This is not clear-cut at all. And it's going to be Manuel in lane three.

CORNISH: Simone Manuel became the first African-American woman to medal in an individual swimming event. She tied for gold in the women's 100-meter freestyle. That audio is courtesy of NBC. Later, Manuel told reporters that while she hopes to be an inspiration to others, she says she would like there to be a day when she is more than just Simone the black swimmer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SIMONE MANUEL: The title black swimmer makes it seem like I'm not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I'm not supposed to be able to break records. And that's not true because I work just as hard as anybody else, and I love the sport. And I want to win just like everybody else.

CORNISH: Here to talk about the significance of Simone Manuel's win is David Steele. He's a senior writer at Sporting News. Welcome to the studio.

DAVID STEELE: Thanks so much for having me.

CORNISH: So you've been watching the Olympics for a while. What was your initial reaction when you heard about her win?

STEELE: I was in shock but in a pleasant way of course. I was - it was odd because I was actually covering a football game, and I saw Twitter just blow up when the results came across that she had won. And I had been sort of paying attention to her because you so rarely see African-American swimmers at that level. So it was an incredibly exciting thing. And to see the reaction from everybody across the country, including family members who were just thrilled to see this - it was an incredibly moving thing for me.

CORNISH: As we heard in that tape, Simone Manuel talking about being Simone the black swimmer - and let's put this in context because it was a struggle for black Americans to get access to public swimming pools for many decades. That changed with desegregation. And so let's start in, say, (laughter) 1955 because this was not an easy transition, right? What happened?

STEELE: Oh, not even close. Just the earliest part of the 20th century, pools were segregated. Public pools were segregated all over the country. I mean it absolutely was not limited to the South. Blacks were - if they were even allowed in the pools in these cities, they were allowed only on certain days.

And when the Civil Rights Movement started to go after that as well because it was such a well-known - it's a well-established part of - basically of Jim Crow, whites resisted very violently. There were fights at pools. And there was this very infamous photo of a hotel manager in Florida pouring acid into the pool to try to get protesters out of the pool.

CORNISH: This was a motel manager James Brock dumping muriatic acid into the water. This was in June of 1964 as protesters were demonstrating being blocked from the swimming pool. Talk a little bit about how all of this history essentially established a stereotype about blacks and swimming.

STEELE: It was believed that blacks could not swim, that there was something physiological - sort of that pseudoscience that explained either black people's lack of success in a particular sport or in a particular endeavor. The reality was of course that all those avenues had been blocked. They weren't allowed to. But black people weren't ever put in a position to swim, so the stereotype was built that they could not swim.

There was this very famous "Nightline" interview with Ted Koppel about 30 years ago - was one of the anniversaries of Jackie Robinson's entry into the Major Leagues. Al Campanis was the Dodgers' baseball executive. And in his explanation of why black people were not good at managing baseball, he included in there that blacks were not good at swimming. And he said, they're not good at swimming because they don't have the buoyancy.

CORNISH: Fast forward to today, and are there more Simones out there? Are we seeing more and more people of color in competitive swimming in the U.S.?

STEELE: There are. In the Olympic trials before these games in Rio began, there was more than one African-American swimmer. There are more than one at the college levels, which is where they produce the swim clubs. And a lot of these cities are becoming more integrated, and that's sort of the feeder to the Olympics. So I think this is going to be a big jumping-off point.

But this is also sort of the culmination of this sort of little-by-little advance of black people getting into the pool and being competitive because it's sort of, again, part of society opening up a little more and black people being in position to take advantage of the access that they were denied for so many decades in this country's history.

CORNISH: That's David Steele. He's a senior writer at Sporting News. Thank you for coming in.

STEELE: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.