More Under-Pressure Excellence Carries Simone Manuel to Gold in 100 Freestyle

World Swimming Championships (Simone Manuel)

Gwangju, Day 6 finals

Women’s 100 freeestyle

Is there anyone in the sport as clutch as Simone Manuel?

For the third straight time in a major worldwide competition, the American entered the final of the 100 freestyle as an underdog. And for the straight time, Manuel shined under pressure by capturing the gold medal, this time going wire-to-wire to repeat as world champion in 52.04. Manuel’s time was good for an American record, and stands as the third-fastest performance in history.

While Australian Cate Campbell and Sweden’s Sarah Sjostrom entered the final with favorite status, Manuel flew under the radar in Lane One. It didn’t matter that she shared the 2016 Olympic crown with Canadian Penny Oleksiak. It didn’t matter that Manuel, two years ago in Budapest, was the world champ. Manuel was the forgotten athlete, until she once again proved the doubters wrong.

A subpar semifinal relegated Manuel to Lane One, but that outside presence may have played into the American’s favor. Manuel shot off the blocks and made the turn comfortably ahead of the rest of the field, splitting 24.81. That front-half effort handed Manuel a .42 edge on Sjostrom and a .48 margin on Campbell. Obviously, it was too much room to make up.

Campbell pulled ahead of Sjostrom over the final lap, finishing in 52.43, while Sjostrom checked in at 52.46. For Sjostrom, it was her fourth consecutive world medal in the event, complementing three silvers from 2013-2017. But this race was about Manuel, and her penchant for excelling in the biggest of moments.

“I train really hard and that’s simply it,” Manuel said. “I had a rough race in the semifinal, but I got a lane and took advantage of the opportunity. I always feel like I have more to bring and can continue to improve. It’s about the love I have for the sport.”

And a love for the spotlight.

One of the things that separates good from great is the ability to deliver under pressure, when a special performance is needed and when all eyes are watching. Tiger Woods, in his heyday, loved the moment. Michael Jordan wanted the ball with the game on the line. In the pool, Michael Phelps relished the intensity of the moment. There is no doubt that Manuel fits the mold of the aforementioned athletes. She has the track record to prove it.

Three years ago, Manuel went into the final of the 100 free at the Rio Olympics as the third seed, the gold medal expected to go to Campbell. At the touch, though, there was Manuel with a “1” next to her name, along with Oleksiak. Meanwhile, two years ago, Manuel was supposed to finish behind Sjostrom in Budapest, only to set an American record while clipping the Swede. Now, in Gwangju, Manuel delivered another knockout blow to the perceived favorites.

When Manuel produced anchor splits of 51.92 and 52.37 in relay action earlier in the week, it was clear that the Stanford University product was in good form. But a more indicative barometer of Manuel’s strong preparation arrived on the opening leg of the United States’ 4×200 freestyle relay. Despite being best known as a sprinter, Manuel led off in 1:56.09, which was proof that she wasn’t just carrying speed, but also possessed plenty of endurance. That combination, coupled with her affinity for feeling the heat, enabled Manuel to become the first repeat titlist in the 100 free since Kornelia Ender went back-to-back in 1973 and 1975. Ender, of course, was part of the East German systematic doping program that was implemented in the 1970s and 1980s.

As much as Manuel has established herself as a champion in the water, she has been equally impressive on land, taking the time to discuss important issues. An African-American, Manuel stands out in what is a predominantly white sport. But she has used her status as an Olympic and world champion to motivate others to think beyond outside perceptions. Citing the recent success of the United States Women’s National Team at the World Cup, and its discussion of receiving equal pay, Manuel also recognized the importance of using a platform to shed light on global issues.

“There are racial stereotypes in every aspect of life, whether it’s academics, sports, the music industry,” Manuel said at the beginning of the week. “That’s why it’s super important to me to inspire people to dream big, to go after swimming and not feel as if they have to fit inside a specific box. Hopefully it will diversify the sport.”

With the way Campbell has performed this week, it made sense that she was pegged as the favorite for gold. In a pair of relays, Campbell was superb on the anchor leg, propelling Australia to titles in the 4×100 freestyle relay and the mixed medley relay. On both occasions, Campbell fended off Manuel. But in her first solo final of the competition, the Aussie got caught up racing Sjostrom in the middle of the pool, a major hiccup as Manuel did her thing on the outside.

“I didn’t see her out there,” Campbell said. “I was locked in a battle with Sarah but I think this is a great stepping stone for me. It shows I can mix it up with the best in the world. I got the best of Simone a couple of nights ago and last year (at the Pan Pacific Championships) and I look forward to racing her again next year…I put in a really stellar performance. It has been a great week in the pool and to come away with a silver medal at a World Championships isn’t anything to be sneezed at. I think my goal coming in here has been to shift the focus and the emphasis off the outcome, and looking at the races I put together. While I am not 100% happy with that race, I think that I have shown some great improvements over the last couple of years. I think it will be great for me going into Tokyo without a huge target on my back.”

Sjostrom’s bronze medal landed her on the podium for the third time this week, as she was the silver medalist in the 100 butterfly and the bronze medalist in the 200 freestyle. Via her third-place finish, Sjostrom became the first woman to medal in the 100 freestyle at the World Championships on four consecutive occasions. The world-record holder at 51.71, Sjostrom easily held off Aussie Emma McKeon, who finished fourth in 52.75.

The Swedish star returned to the pool later in the session and nailed down the top seed for the final of the 50 butterfly with a time of 24.79. With a .75 advantage on No. 2 seed Ranomi Kromowidjojo entering the final, it would take a disaster for Sjostrom not to collect her first gold medal of the meet.


1. Simone Manuel, United States 52.04

2. Cate Campbell, Australia 52.43

3. Sarah Sjostrom, Sweden 52.46

4. Emma McKeon, Australia 52.75

5. Taylor Ruck, Canada 53.03

6. Femke Heemskerk, Netherlands 53.05

7. Mallory Comerford, United States 53.22

8. Freya Anderson, Great Britain 53.44

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