Simone Manuel breaks the ultimate color barrier – the pool

Updated 7:21 PM EDT, Fri August 12, 2016

Story highlights

Roxanne Jones: Victorious black swimmer Simone Manuel knows the resonance of her position in an era of racial struggle

Jones: History of blacks being systematically denied use of public pools makes Manuel's Olympic win also a victory about race

Editor’s Note: Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer and as a reporter at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She was named a 2010 Woman of the Year by Women in Sports and Events, is a co-author of “Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete,” and CEO of the Push Marketing Group. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

For black women in America, the past several years have been deeply painful. Not that it’s ever been a joy ride, exactly. We just thought this journey was getting a little smoother, that we could drop our guard a bit and just live.

But then here we are again – mothers, daughters and friends, every day, it seems, publicly grieving for lost loved ones, protesting angrily that our #BlackLivesMatter, witnessing our sisters being brutalized and sometimes killed by police, or by other angry men.

I confess that collectively some days our grief and frustration just seem too much to bear.

And then grace steps in. And we are inspired.

Simone Manuel’s Olympic gold win in the 100-meter freestyle – the first ever for an African-American woman in swimming – reminds us how resilient and strong we have always been, and how strong we must continue to be. Gliding through the water with unfettered determination and all the beauty inherited from generations past, Manuel reminded us that we have always been and always will be one of the most important ingredients in this jumbled American pie.

A Stanford University student from Sugarland, Texas, Simone understands why she is so special. She embraces the responsibility that comes with being a successful, young black woman. And after her victory, Simone boldly stood before the world and talked about how today’s toxic racial climate affects her:

“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” Manuel said. “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on.”

Brava, Simone. This young woman has a calm courage and sense of self that so many Millennials are showing the world these days. It rejuvenates my optimism. And this is not the first time Manuel has spoken about her commitment to the fight for racial justice. She’s always been there.

Long before the games, she explained her motivation to win. “I’m hoping what I can do in Rio is give some people hope…you just have to keep fighting,” Manuel told TIME. “Our ancestors did. What we do [now] is a reflection of what they have done for us. It’s also a platform for what will happen in the future. We just have to keep fighting and persevering to try to make change.”

Indeed, the politics of swimming in the U.S. mirrors our history of segregation and white resistance to integration. Still today, attitudes about swimming often reflect lasting stereotypes and white America’s attitudes about race.

We need look no further for those attitudes than today’s headlines declaring Manuel’s Olympic win.

“Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American” said the San Jose Mercury News headline. Immediately, it was rightly blasted on social media as both sexist and racist. The paper apologized and made a correction, but still didn’t think Manuel’s historic performance deserved its own billing separate from Phelps.