Simone Manuel was the face of U.S. women's swimming at the Rio Olympics. A gold-medal winner in the 100 meter freestyle and a silver-medal winner in the 50 meter freestyle, she added on another gold and silver in the 400m relays. In late March of 2021 she fell ill while training for a big meet in Texas, a lead-up to the Olympic Trials. After that meet she went to stay with her family for the first time in over a year, and a doctor diagnosed her medical issues as overtraining syndrome (OTS).
In an emotional press conference that Manuel gave after she failed to make the finals of the 100 free at the 2021 Olympic Trials, the standout swimmer graciously sat and answered numerous questions, some of a personal nature, about her symptoms and the stress she carried as a black athlete during the racial reckoning of 2020. The list she provided of her body's warning signals: high heartbeat, extreme fatigue, inability to resume her normal schedule after weeks of modified activity, anxiety, depression and insomnia, are all familiar to me. I had the same issues in 2011 and 2012 when I over trained for a marathon / triathlon combo. William, too, shared many of those symptoms in 2017 after his freshman swim season.
A reporter asked Manuel if she thought that overtraining syndrome was common with swimmers. She said she could not answer that, having just heard this diagnosis for the first time, but that she supposed it was quite common. Swimmers work so hard, for so long, trying to turn their bodies into hydrodynamic machines, that we often hear of injuries, burnout, depression, anxiety, stomach and sleep issues. But these symptoms are not often treated as credible. Without understanding, without the official diagnosis, swimmers have trouble finding solutions from doctors, parents, coaches. The diagnosis came at a terrible time for Manuel, but the understanding of doctors and coaches who allowed her to rest - that was fortunate.
By offering her story and being so vulnerable with a nation full of swimmers wondering "why?" Simone Manuel shone a light on a patchwork of problems in our sport. Too much difficult training can ruin an athlete - even a world class athlete. But this story has a happy ending. At the urging of her doctors and her coach, Manuel rested for three weeks in April, a thing absolutely unheard of just a month before Trials. Though she missed the final of the 100 free last week, she persevered through prelims and semifinals in the 50 meter free, and last night she won, landing on a second Olympic team. America's sprint queen is headed for Tokyo, and a more worthy winner I cannot imagine.