Persistence Prevails: The Forging of an Olympian

Sugar Land native and four-time Olympic medalist Simone Manuel.

Sugar Land native and four-time Olympic medalist Simone Manuel.

Fort Bend County is known as being a great place to live and raise a family.  As one of the most diverse counties in the United States, it provides metropolitan amenities, yet with a sense of small town community. Families experience outstanding schools and opportunities for success for those who apply themselves in work, in school and in athletics. And one small town athlete has made it to the top of her sport – in a big way.

A Dream Come True

Sugar Land’s Simone Ashley Manuel, born August 2, 1996, made world history last summer. As a member of the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team, she boarded the plane to Rio de Janeiro for the Summer Olympic Games on August 1st for her first Olympics at the age of 19. When she landed in Rio, she was 20 and would soon set an Olympic record.  Simone, who specializes in sprint freestyle, anchored the U.S. Women’s 4×100 medley relay team, and they took the Gold medal with a time of 3:43:13. And this was just the beginning for this Fort Bend girl.

Simone competed in the 100 meter freestyle and impressively tied with 16 year-old Canadian Penny Oleksiak, who was considered one of the up and coming swimmers for the 2016 Olympics. Simone and Oleksiak surpassed the previous time to share a new world record of 52:70. Not only was this an extremely impressive showing of team and individual performance, but it secured Simone’s standing as the first African American woman to win a Gold medal in an individual swimming event.

Next, Simone won a Silver medal in the 50 meter freestyle, just .02 seconds shy of Denmark’s Pernille Blume, who won Gold with a time of 24.08. Simone won a second Silver medal in the 4×100 freestyle relay in which the U.S. team finished as a close second to the Australian team.

Where It All Started

The Manuel Family: Ryan, Simone, Sharron, Christopher and Marc.

The Manuel Family: Ryan, Simone, Sharron, Christopher and Marc.

Simone is the youngest child and only daughter of Sharron and Marc Manuel, who make their home in Sugar Land. Her two older brothers, Christopher and Ryan, are both athletes in their own right playing collegiate basketball for Oklahoma Christian University and Southern Methodist University, respectively. Both Sharron and Marc also demonstrated athletic talent. Marc played basketball for Xavier University in Louisiana, and Sharron played volleyball and basketball in high school.

According to Sharron, Simone was never afraid of the water even at two years old. “She would jump off the diving board at age three. She always wanted to be around water. She never had any inhibitions.  When Simone was four, the boys were going to recreational swim team at Houston Swim Club on Highway 90, and Simone wanted to go too. She wanted to be on the swim team.”

Sharron wanted her daughter to take swim lessons first. “Simone kept pushing, and the second day of swim lessons, she swam across the pool. While the boys went to six weeks of swim team, Simone went to six weeks of swim lessons. Simone would get up every day and get herself ready. She was so happy to go to swim practice.

Determination and Drive

“She isn’t any different in a lot of ways, but she is more determined. She makes up her mind. She will do anything to be successful and get it done. I believe you need to allow your child to lead you in their passion. I took her lead,” Sharron explained.

Simone was encouraged to try different activities as she grew up. She played basketball, volleyball and soccer. She played the clarinet and was a Girl Scout Brownie when she was younger. She took dance through age 11, and then, she focused on one sport: swimming. “I was motivated by my general love for the sport at a young age, and I decided to pursue it because I loved it so much,” said Simone.

Sugar Land welcomed home 2016 Olympic athletes Simone Manuel and Steven Lopez with a celebration at Sugar Land Town Square last August. Photo by Zoë Favre.

Sugar Land welcomed home 2016 Olympic athletes Simone Manuel and Steven Lopez with a celebration at Sugar Land Town Square last August. Photo by Zoë Favre.

“Simone never complained,” Sharron said. “She hated to miss swim practice even when she was sore or tired. She never said she didn’t want to go to practice. At an early age, Simone would set a goal and was willing to work hard to reach her goal and have that delayed gratification.”

Sharron shared insight to those who helped Simone along the way. “Many people have supported Simone in her journey,  including Meredith May who laid the foundation and First Colony Swim Team Coach Allison Beebe who told Simone to try different sports, be a kid and not limit herself. Markell Ling has been a phenomenal dryland coach working on core, balancing and Pilates.”

“My parents, my brothers and my coaches all helped me along the way,” Simone said. “Family is very important to me. I would not be where I am today without my family’s love, encouragement and support.”

A 2014 graduate of Austin High School, Simone learned how to balance academics with a rigorous training and competition schedule. “The teachers at Austin High School were so supportive to Simone, providing lesson packets for her to do on the road and scheduling quizzes and tests,” said Sharron. “Simone always had her laptop. The technology made it possible.”

At the Olympic Games in Rio, Sharron encouraged her daughter to join the family during her non-training time to which Simone responded, “I am here as an athlete to compete, not as a sightseer,” which is a further testament to her consistent focus and dedication to her sport and to her team.  And as the world knows, it definitely paid off.

Simone Manuel celebrating her Gold medal win in the 100 meter freestyle at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

Simone Manuel celebrating her Gold medal win in the 100 meter freestyle at the 2016 Summer Olympic Games.

Thinking back to the moment her team won their first Gold medal, Simone said, “My feeling was one of joy, excitement, relief, pride and humility.” And when she tied for Gold in the 100-meter freestyle, she recognized the talents of her competitors. “I have such respect for all of the athletes competing at their best. I know what it takes to get there. It is a humbling experience to tie for Gold. I felt so blessed.”

In regard to all of her medals, Simone shared, “Each medal is special to me in its own unique way.  I am just as happy with my team medals and also Silver medals as I am with the Golds.”

Dreaming for the Future

“What’s next for me is getting back into my college courses and focusing on competing with my school team at Stanford University and preparing for the National Collegiate Athletic Association championships,” said Simone, who along with fellow Olympian Katie Ledecky, is on the Stanford University swim team. Both have big plans for success in the coming year. Then, it’s on to the 2020 Olympics. Simone expressed, “It is an honor to represent my country, and I would love to experience that again.”

“This is her dream,” said Sharron. “I have learned don’t set limits on what you think is possible. Parents should listen to their kids and allow them to take the lead in their passion.”

Simone’s advice to youth is, “Do not be afraid to dream big and go after your goals. If I can do it, you can do it too!”