Smallwood: Simone Manuel can take a lesson from fellow Olympian Simone Biles

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Gymnast Simone Biles (left) helped blaze a path that swimmer Simone Manuel can follow.

It is a tricky proposition to be the first of your race, religion, gender, etc., to accomplish something - especially on a stage as magnified as the Olympics.

Take, for example, the stories of U.S. swimmer Simone Manuel and U.S. gymnast Simone Biles during the first week of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

At the core, what these two African-American athletes accomplished during the first week of the Games was basically the same.

The narratives, however, became quite different.

Manuel never wanted to be known as the "African-American" swimmer. She just wanted to be viewed as a swimmer.

Still, last Thursday, when Manuel tied Canada's Penny Oleksiak to share the gold medal in the women's 100-meter freestyle race, the story line was that she became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal.

Biles didn't want to be viewed as the "African-American" gymnast. In 2013, however, that's what she became when she competed at the World Artistic Gymnastic Championships in Antwerp, Belgium, and won the all-around title.

It was a story that Biles became the seventh American woman to win a world all-around title. It became an essay because she was the first African-American to do so.

I concede that I take special pride when an African-American tears down another narrative that we cannot do something, because, then, that story angle is gone for the next time.

Thus far in Rio, Biles has already won a gold medal in the team competition, the individual all-around and the vault.

The story, however, is that she is the first American gymnast to win three gold medals at a single Olympics and the first American woman to win the vault competition.

Despite making history, Biles' isn't getting the hyphenated racial qualifier placed in front of American.

Why?

Well, at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Dominique Dawes became the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympics gymnastics medal (bronze on floor exercise).

As a member of the "Magnificent Seven," she also became first black gymnast of any nationality or gender to win an Olympic gold.

At the 2012 Olympics, much was made of Gabby Douglas becoming the first African-American to win an Olympic all-around gold medal.

Because of Dawes and Douglas, it is no longer a unique angle that Biles is an African-American gymnast. She arrived late to the ball, and that's a good thing.

It is always interesting how we consider race in American society. So much is determined by circumstance.

Jackie Robinson is an American icon because he entered a major league baseball game on April 15, 1947, breaking the color line and thus helping to change society. Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the American League on July 5, 1947, with the Cleveland Indians and suffered most of the same abuse Robinson did. Major League Baseball does not have a "Larry Doby Day," and his No. 14 is not retired throughout baseball.

The reality is that Doby had it as hard as Robinson, but arrived to the big leagues a few months too late.

No reporter asked Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson how long he has been a "black quarterback," as Washington quarterback Doug Williams was, when he became the first to win the NFL's championship game.

Depending on how it's taken, the usage of the qualifier can be taken as a celebration of the accomplishment or a way of inherently diminishing it.

Manuel set an Olympic record in the 100.

"The title 'black swimmer' makes it seem like I am not supposed to be able to win a gold medal," Manuel told reporters in Rio de Janeiro of why she hasn't always embraced that description. "I am not supposed to be able to break the Olympic record, and that is not true. I work as hard as anybody else. I love the sport and I want to win, just like everybody else."

Still, it was nearly a decade ago that the 20-year-old junior at Stanford University understood she competes in a sport in which African-Americans historically have not participated, much less excelled at the highest level.

Manuel, who also won gold in the 4 x 100 medley, plus silver in the 50 free and the 4 x 100 free, began swimming at age 5 because there are a lot of places with deep water in Houston and her parents knew that 70 percent of African-American children cannot swim and are three times more likely to drown than white children.

From that standpoint alone, Manuel's accomplishment is significant if it inspires more black kids to at least learn to swim.

No one said being a pioneer was easy, especially when you did not set out to be one.

"I do hope it kind of goes away," Manuel said of the added attention. "I am super glad with the fact I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport, but, at the same time, I would like there to be a day when there are more of us and it's not 'Simone, the black swimmer.' "

Actually, what Manuel will soon realize is that she has just changed the narrative of the story for the next African-American Olympic swim champion.

All she has to do is read the stories about Simone Biles to understand that.


smallwj@phillynews.com

@SmallTerp

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