My almost 10-year-old African-American son was barely awake the other night. Try as he might, after a long day of summer fun, staying up past 10 p.m. is still a challenge for him. Why did he do it? More importantly, why did we let him? Two reasons: Simone Biles and Simone Manuel, who respectively represented Team USA in the women’s individual all-around and the 100-meter freestyle swimming event in Rio.
To be honest, we didn’t know anything about Simone Manuel. No one did. She came out of nowhere. The NBC commentators barely acknowledged her in the lead up to the final and spent more airtime on the favored Cate and Bronte Campbell, Australian sisters who also both qualified for the event.
Yet Simone Manuel did what no African-American woman had ever done before. Ever. She beat the favorites and won gold for Team USA. My son sat up dazed and confused just like most of us when history turns a page. We don’t understand the meaning of it all so we’re left with the raw emotion of seeing something remarkable and we rub our eyes in disbelief.
The singularity of the moment was lessened by the (predictable) coverage and reaction the morning after. The Mercury News of San Jose tweeted “Michael Phelps shares historic night with African-American,” neglecting her name, gender and even her event. They quickly retreated, apologized and corrected the embarrassing omission. Facebook and Twitter erupted in congratulations but with a predictable theme in caveats (“It doesn’t matter what race she is, only her accomplishment.”) Nice sentiment but one must recall that a generation ago, she probably wouldn’t have been able to swim in most community public pools because of her race. Mostly likely, she has living relatives that faced segregated pools, unequal accommodations in housing and education and were discriminated against in employment opportunities. I’d like to think that the lingering effects of those memories may have softened when she touched that wall. Let’s be honest. She did not just break an Olympic record. She shattered a chain.
In an earlier interview with the Huffington Post, she mentioned that she often was discouraged because of the sport’s lack of prominent African-American athletes. Now because of her and also her remarkable teammate Lia Neal, Simone’s feat may have a ripple effect on thousands of African-American children for generations to come. Pretty simple, when you don’t have someone to look up to, be the someone others look up to.
Simone Biles is also meaningful to my son whom we adopted when he was three months old. Biles’ maternal grandfather and his wife adopted her and her sister when her biological mother was not able to parent her. And when a callous NBC commentator said they weren’t her parents, adoptive families around the world responded. Again, the media had to profusely apologize and clarify to make things right. Or, at least, less wrong.
Although she’s not the first great African-American female gymnast to reach the Olympic podium, Simone Biles is already being called the greatest female gymnast. Ever. Imagine future generations of American girls aspiring to be the best gymnasts they can be and imagining Simone Biles in their minds. I chuckle at the thought of exasperated mothers telling their disappointed blonde or red-haired daughters, “Honey, your hair just won’t lay like Simone’s!” For me, a person of color myself, it’s refreshing to see an aesthetic begin with a non-European standard.
She will undoubtedly inspire future greatness in others and that’s the noblest form of immortality, isn’t it? My son wants to read a biography about her. How many 10-year-old boys want to read a biography about a woman? That’s how remarkable she is.
Both young women share a unique moment in history. They shine at a time when racial tensions in the United States are at a low point and when the gender gap seems as wide as it did a generation ago. Our political and social discourse has disintegrated to a childish level to which we dare not expose our children.
Time will tell how these young women will each leverage her spotlight. However, if past experience is any indication, I doubt that either will squander an opportunity to be exceptional. In her post-event interview, Simone Manuel thanked God and all those who came before her. Not bad for a woman who just won the hearts of millions.
During Simone Biles’ final pass of her routine, right when her 4-foot-8-inch frame seemed to be about to touch the roof of the building, I noticed my son rubbing his eyes. Maybe he was trying to stay awake. Maybe he was in disbelief of what she was doing. Maybe, perhaps, he wiped away an unexpected tear that he deemed unmanly. I couldn’t tell. I was tearing up myself.