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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Simone Manuel is a role model

Simone Manuel, 20, is the first African-American to win an individual Olympics gold medal in swimming.
Simone Manuel, 20, is the first African-American to win an individual Olympics gold medal in swimming.
Published Aug. 15, 2016

Simone Manuel, the first African-American to win an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming, is a role model for the ages. The precious look on her face when she realized she had won the gold in the 100-meter freestyle said so much — and yet there was still so much to be said — about the fraught history of segregated pools in the United States, about the stereotype that "blacks can't swim" and, yes, about water safety.

About 70 percent of African-Americans don't know how to swim, according to a study by the USA Swimming Foundation. In Florida, where beaches beckon and swimming pools offer cool relief from the August heat, every child should be able to swim across a pool. Roughly 10 people drown every day in the United States, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that black children drown at three times the rate of their white peers. Florida has more than its share of drownings.

Manuel, a student at Stanford, wants to be known simply as a swimmer, not a black swimmer. Still, she understands the importance of what she has accomplished, telling the Houston Chronicle about "the impact that we can have on the sport by helping to diversify it and getting people to believe that if we can do it, they can, too. So I'm kind of struggling with it a little bit, but I'm happy to be an inspiration."

To become a champion swimmer first requires a place to swim. And for African-Americans, that was historically often hard, if not impossible. A federal judge in 1954 upheld segregation of public pools — even after the Supreme Court handed down the Brown vs. Board of Education that integrated public schools.

Evidence of a pool's practical, cultural and political importance can be found in St. Petersburg's Jennie Hall Pool, named for the white woman who donated the money to build a pool in 1954 in Wildwood Heights where black people could swim during segregation. A decade later, as the Civil Rights Act was becoming law, a pool at St. Augustine's Monson Motor Lodge served as a flashpoint for the civil rights movement when white and black protesters jumped into the segregated pool. The motel owner poured a jug of muriatic acid into the pool to drive them out.

And think about last weekend's re-opening of the renovated Cuscaden Park pool in Tampa's V.M. Ybor neighborhood. The project was pushed by council member Frank Reddick, a nonswimmer at 60 who didn't go to that pool during segregation because he wouldn't have been allowed in. Still, he wanted it renovated because children, rich or poor, black or white, deserve a place to swim.

Legal segregation is long past, but its effects linger in how few African-Americans can swim at all, let alone become champions. All Americans can look up to Simone Manuel as she helps to break through those final barriers, but it's up to parents to get their children into the water, swimming not just for the gold, but for their own health and safety.

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