Simone Manuel completes remarkable turnaround, qualifies for 2021 Olympics after health struggles

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OMAHA, NEBRASKA - JUNE 20: Abbey Weitzeil and Simone Manuel of the United States react after competing in the Women's 50m freestyle final during Day Eight of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Team Swimming Trials at CHI Health Center on June 20, 2021 in Omaha, Nebraska. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Simone Manuel (right) celebrates with Abby Weitzeil after they both qualified to represent the U.S. in the 50-meter freestyle at the Tokyo Olympics. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Simone Manuel, the 2016 Olympic swimming star who has battled complicated health issues in 2021, completed a remarkable comeback on Sunday night, qualifying for her second Olympics mere months after those health issues forced her out of the pool.

Manuel won the 50-meter freestyle at U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha by 0.01 seconds. Abbey Weitzeil, who qualified in second, leapt across the lane line to hug and congratulate her. Manuel threw her head back into the water in relief, looked up toward the heavens, and brought appreciative hands to her emotional face.

She shook her head, half smiling, half on the verge of tears.

She pulled herself out of the pool, and fell into the loving arms of teammates.

"This year has been difficult, especially the last couple months," Manuel said moments later. "But before I dove in, I felt like it was my moment. And I'm so thankful for the blessings that God has given me."

Earlier in the week, Manuel failed to advance to the final of the 100-meter freestyle, the event in which she won gold five years ago in Rio de Janeiro. At an emotional news conference after her semifinal, she detailed a months-long struggle with "overtraining syndrome." She called it her "biggest fight."

Symptoms first arose in January, she explained — muscle fatigue, shortness of breath, an elevated heart rate. By March, they'd worsened. Her body was faltering. Manuel, after consulting doctors and her coach, decided to take three weeks off from training. From late March through mid-April, two months before trials, she didn't swim a single lap.

Manuel said she also suffered from insomnia, anxiety and depression. At times, she didn't feel like eating. She loves the sport, but at times, she didn't even want to swim. She isolated herself from her family. Her mom would ask her questions over the phone; she’d snap.

The pandemic, she said, might have contributed to everything that her body and mind were going through. She'd pushed so hard, so consistently, for so long with an eye toward the summer of 2020. COVID-19, and the postponement of the Olympics, put 12 more grueling months on her plate.

“To focus on a goal like that for five years instead of four is draining," Manuel admitted Thursday. "You’re motivated still to go for it, because it’s your dream. But also, at the same time, it’s like you're trudging along.”

And then, a few months before the Olympics finally arrived, Manuel's body wouldn't let her push it any further.

“My body wasn’t doing what I knew it was capable of," she said. "I had moments where I didn’t even want to go to the pool, because I knew it was gonna be bad. ... And that was hard for me to grasp during that time."

That she competed at trials was a remarkable accomplishment on its own. "I knew that every race I was going to have at this meet was going to be more of a challenge than it has been in the past," she said Thursday. Her voice got weak, and sniffles were plentiful, as she recounted her trying year. She said she was proud of herself, no matter the outcome this week.

"This isn’t the last time you’re gonna see me, and this isn’t the last time I’m gonna do something great in the pool," she promised.

That she won the 50-free final three days later, and that she's going to Tokyo, might just be the greatest intra-meet turnaround that the sport of swimming has ever seen.

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