U.S. Swimming Star's Olympics Miss a Cautionary Tale of Training Too Hard

Simone Manuel, a reigning Olympic gold medalist, failed to qualify Thursday for the Tokyo Games in her best event after being diagnosed with overtraining syndrome.
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OMAHA, Neb. — In an afternoon practice session last month in Palo Alto, the Stanford women’s swim team pounded through a vigorous freestyle set. Working with resistance equipment and then performing a grueling series of short-rest sprints, Greg Meehan’s team was pushing itself hard.

In an adjacent pool, Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel was doing a much more gentle workout, and it ended early. This was a time of intense final preparation for U.S. Olympic trials, and Manuel wasn’t up for it. Something clearly wasn’t right, but the American record-holder, reigning world champion and Olympic gold medalist in the 100-meter freestyle wasn’t ready to discuss it at the time.

Thursday, at the end of a jarring, difficult day that she feared was coming, Manuel opened up. Her struggle was laid bare. After finishing ninth and failing to qualify for finals in her best event—leaving her with just one chance left to make the Tokyo Olympics, in the 50 free this weekend—she shared the heart-wrenching misery of her 2021 season. She talked about the elevated heart rate, the fatigue, the depression, the slow process of figuring what was wrong, the time away from training, and the too-little, too-late attempt to piece her Olympic quest back together.

Simone Manuel reacts after swimming in the Women s 100m Freestyle prelims during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials Swimming competition at CHI Health Center Omaha.

Simone Manuel reacts after swimming in the Women's 100m Freestyle prelims during the U.S. Olympic trials.

With tears periodically welling up and voice breaking, the 24-year-old detailed roughly six months dealing with overtraining syndrome, which medical periodicals describe as excessive fatigue, elevated heart rate and depression related to excessive exercise and insufficient rest. “Nothing I’d ever heard of,” Manuel said. “Just walking up the stairs to the pool, I was gassed. Workouts that seemed to be easier were really hard.”

In layman’s terms, Manuel burned her body out training and wasn't able to fully recover in time for the Summer Olympics.

It’s a bitter personal disappointment for a woman who won a record seven medals at the 2019 world championships, and a huge blow to America’s medal hopes in Tokyo. A fully healthy Manuel would have been expected to be a key part of at least three and maybe four relays, in addition to competing for medals in the 50 and 100 frees. The rest of the world just saw its hopes of beating the American women improve in several events.

“It’s definitely hard for me to be sitting up here,” Manuel said, though she articulated her struggle for 24 brave minutes. On her lowest public moment as a swimmer, she showed real strength.

“I sometimes don’t feel like I sit back and appreciate what I’ve done,” Manuel said. “This was the first time, before I even dove in for a race, that I was actually proud of myself. I hope that inspires more athletes to feel that way—I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that we don’t feel so proud of ourselves until we accomplish something great. That’s what’s giving me peace. I know I’ve given everything I possibly could to even be here. I continued to stay strong in this process, even when there were times I wanted to give up.”

She was always going to give it her best shot on the stage that matters most in her sport. But it became clear weeks ago that her best would not compare to what she’s accustomed to.

In January, the bad days started cropping up. Normally a driven and committed trainer, she was often slow and sluggish in the water and her heart rate wasn’t returning to normal levels after workouts. “My body wasn’t doing what it was capable of,” she said. “It got to the point that I didn’t even feel like going to the pool.”

In early March, Manuel and other Stanford swimmers competed in San Antonio in their first major meet since the pandemic shutdown. Manuel’s times were poor. From there, she went home to Houston to consult with doctors and was diagnosed with OTS. In late March, they recommended three weeks out of the water—something no swimmer wants to hear that close to the Olympics.

Manuel returned to practice on April 17, but recovery did not follow. Some workouts were good, others were not, and she rarely finished a full practice. When she skipped Stanford’s next pro meet, at Mission Viejo in April, that was another sign that she was far from ready for Omaha.

Manuel did perform better in the final pre-trials tuneup, in Austin in May, breaking 54 seconds in the 100. And she put on a confident front when meeting with the media here last Saturday—trying to will herself to another Olympian performance, to fool her body into thinking it was well, to conjure up something she hadn’t been able to do for months.

“My faith is extremely important to me, so I think I was having a lot of moments where I was just telling myself to believe,” Manuel said. “And of course, you know in the back of your head this is a realistic voice saying, ‘OK, but you’ve only been in the water for eight weeks, and you are about to swim at Olympic trials.’ But I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me.”

Belief was followed by hard reality. Manuel scratched the 200 free Tuesday, and that was followed by this day of reckoning. Her preliminary swim was a struggle: her time of 54.47 seconds was nearly 2 1/2 seconds off her American record of 2019—a considerable gap in a sprint event. In the semifinals Thursday night, she shaved just three-tenths of a second off that time, missing finals by .02.

“That 54 was the best I could be today, in this moment,” she said. “That’s a tough pill to swallow, but what makes it easier to swallow is that I went out there and did my best.”

Simone Manuel swims in the Women s 100m Freestyle prelims during the U.S. Olympic Team Trials Swimming competition at CHI Health Center Omaha.

Simone Manuel swims in the Women's 100m Freestyle prelims during the U.S. Olympic trials.

Dealing with overtraining syndrome was the final challenge in more than a year of issues. The pandemic shutdown certainly complicated training everywhere, but Northern California—and Stanford in particular—was particularly serious about its shutdown. Manuel and U.S. teammate Katie Ledecky had access to a backyard pool for training for much of the summer and were grateful for it, but it was hardly ideal.

Heaping on top of this sudden immersion in an almost monastic existence was the police violence against Blacks that stained the summer of 2020 in America. Manuel spoke up articulately and passionately, but events such as the killing of George Floyd took their toll on her.

“Being a Black person in America played a part in it,” she said. “The last year for the Black community has been brutal. … It’s not something I can ignore. It was just another factor that can influence you mentally in a draining way.”

Manuel is one of many veteran American swimmers who found the one-year delay of the Olympics to her decided detriment. The wreckage on the journey to Tokyo includes many women in their mid-to-late 20s who might have been starring at this meet if it were held as originally scheduled in 2020, but now find themselves either off the U.S. team or scrambling for a spot in the final days of trials.

But Manuel also wanted everyone to know this: even if Tokyo is not in her plans, she’s far from done. This setback, painful as it has been, sets her up for a great comeback.

“This isn’t the last time you’re going to see me,” she said. “And this isn’t the last time I’m going to do something great in the pool. I’m confident in that.”

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