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African-American Women Make Olympic History by Winning Gold in Swimming, Gymnastics & Shot Put

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The Olympics continue in Rio de Janeiro, where Stanford swimmer Simone Manuel has made history, becoming the first African-American female swimmer to win an Olympic medal in an individual event. After winning, Manuel said, “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on.” Manuel’s win was only one of a number of historic Olympic victories for African-American female athletes over the last week. African-American gymnast Simone Biles scored her third gold medal when she became the first American woman to win the Olympic vault individual. And Michelle Carter became the first American woman to win a gold medal in shot put. For more, we speak with Jesse Washington, a senior writer for The Undefeated. He’s covering the Olympics from Rio.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: As we head to Brazil, the Olympics are continuing in Rio de Janeiro, where Stanford swimmer Simone Manuel has made history, becoming the first African-American female swimmer to win an Olympic medal in an individual event. Manuel tied Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak in the 100-meter freestyle. Both women won gold medals and set a new Olympic record. After winning, Simone Manuel said, quote, “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory,” she said.

Simone Manuel’s win was only one of a number of historic Olympic events over the last week. Usain Bolt of Jamaica won the 100-meter dash in 9.81 seconds Sunday night, making him the only person to ever win the 100-meter race three times. He was Jamaican. American swimmer Michael Phelps scored his 23rd gold medal when the U.S. won the men’s four-by-100-meter medley relay. Phelps is now the most decorated Olympian in all history. African-American gymnast Simone Biles scored her third gold medal when she became the first American woman to win the Olympic vault individual. And tennis player Monica Puig won Puerto Rico’s first gold medal in Olympic history.

Joining us now is Jesse Washington, senior writer for The Undefeated, covering the Olympics from Rio.

Jesse, thanks so much for being with us. Talk about these significant wins, Jesse. Why don’t you begin with—begin with Simone Biles.

JESSE WASHINGTON: Well, Simone is the greatest gymnast of all time, by popular acclaim, by the testimony of the gymnasts who have come before her. And there’s a lot of pride in the black community about that, to see a young black woman excelling on the world stage. It has a lot of significance for a community that still can feel marginalized and forgotten and not appreciated.

AMY GOODMAN: And she has an amazing life story, Simone Biles, who was born in Columbus, Ohio, is that right? And with her connection, both her family, being raised by her grandparents, and her connection to Belize, which is also celebrating.

JESSE WASHINGTON: She does have an amazing story, and she’s had to overcome a lot of adversity. And she has a tough relationship with her mom, even to this day, and so that creates more of an underdog spirit. And I think it also kind of plays into some of these stereotypes that a lot of the media likes to see about young black athletes growing up in these troubled areas—drugs, parents, that kind of thing. And so, that’s made her story more attractive for a narrative. But at the same time, she had a set of grandparents that took her in, that were prosperous. Her grandparents were able to build a million-dollar gym for her to train in. So that’s not something you think about often when we see a young black athlete.

AMY GOODMAN: Right. Her mother had drug problems, and her four children, Simone being one of them, were—she was losing them, and her grandparents took her and her sibling—two, her and her sibling, in and then raised them. And the country of Belize?

JESSE WASHINGTON: You know, I don’t know much about the country of Belize with her. I’m not—I’m not up on that aspect of her story.

AMY GOODMAN: Belize, yeah, her grandmother, who raised her as her mother, was from Belize. But talk, overall, about the significance of the Rio Olympics, with the kind of historic wins you’ve been covering.

JESSE WASHINGTON: Well, I work for The Undefeated, which is a website about race and sports. And so, we’re very attuned to a lot of the racial dynamics that are going down here. Our audience is very interested in firsts and in successful black athletes, athletes of color, black women who overcome odds to do great things. And there’s been a number of moments like that here in these Rio Olympics, Simone Manuel being one of the best examples as the first black swimmer to win an individual gold medal. Now, when you start getting into these firsts, sometimes it’s the first black woman to win an individual, a first black woman to win a relay, first left-handed black swimmer to win a medal on a Tuesday. So, it shows that there’s still a hunger for these firsts to be recognized.

But overlooked in the whole Simone Manuel, indeed, a historic accomplishment, is that Simone and her teammate, Lia Neal, who have both been being asked all these black swimmer questions, they’re ready to just be swimmers. And I asked Lia, when I had a chance to sit down with her, “How do you feel about always getting asked, leading into these Olympics, black swimmer, black swimmer, black swimmer?” And she said, “It can be tough.” And Simone Manuel told me, “It weighs me down a little bit. And when I got in the pool to win that gold, I had to get rid of the weight of the whole black community.” So, it’s interesting how these narratives can really form. And we think that we’re praising and celebrating these athletes, but it can be tough for them.

Nevertheless, it has been a big deal here in Rio, and a black woman won the first U.S. medal in the shot put ever, first gold medal ever, the “Shot Diva.” If you haven’t been on the Shot Diva’s Instagram, you’ve got to go there, get yourself some clothes, some makeup. She’s really cool. So, there’s been a lot of moments like that here in Rio, and it’s been pretty awesome to see.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Simone Manuel, well, the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming gold medal, asked about the significance of her victory immediately after the race. She was speaking to NBC.

NBC REPORTER: You are the first African-American woman to medal in an individual event in swimming. What does that mean to you, Simone?

SIMONE MANUEL: Yeah, it means a lot. I mean, this medal is not just for me, it’s for a whole bunch of people who have came before me and have been an inspiration to me—Maritza, Cullen. And it’s for all the people after me who can’t—who believe they can’t do it. And I just want to be an inspiration to others that you can do it.

AMY GOODMAN: After Simone Manuel was awarded the gold medal, she said, quote, “It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory,” she said. She also said, “Just coming into this race I kind of tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders, which is something I carry with me just being in this position. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not 'Simone the black swimmer,'” as you said, Jesse Washington.

JESSE WASHINGTON: Yes, she did say she would like it to not “Simone the black swimmer.” And that’s because I asked her, “Are you ready to move past this? Haven’t we got enough firsts now to just say, 'All right, we can be finished with the race question in swimming'?” We’ve had a gold medal in the year 2000. We’ve had golds and world records and all types of swimmers. And she’s ready to do that. And she also said, “Calling me the first black swimmer makes it seem like I can’t swim fast, that I can’t break records. It almost has this sort of affirmative action-type feel to it.”

So, I think that one of the reasons why this narrative developed is—I was at the press conference with Simone after her historic win. And there were at least 100 journalists there from around the world. There were with 50, 60 cameras. And I looked around the room, and I was the only black journalist in the room. And I checked every face and behind every camera. And, to me, that really said something. So, everyone is fixated on this first thing, because that’s—in their minds, justifiably so, they feel like “I’m praising you, I’m giving you your props, I’m recognizing this historic thing.” But you have to look deeper than that sometimes. And you have to look at how these athletes feel, the weight that they carry with them.

I’m wearing a shirt right now—I don’t know if you could see it—from the '68 Olympics, one of the most famous Olympic moments, where the 200-meter medalists gave the Black Power salute on the medal stand. They were kicked out of the Olympics, their careers were over, because they took a moment to say, “Listen, black folks need their rights to be respected in the United States.” So, the fact that we're still dealing with this all these years later and that we’re still looking for firsts in the Olympics, we’re still looking to black athletes as the spokesmen for black America and the spokeswomen for black America instead of athletes, I think it’s time to change the narrative.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, after Simone Manuel’s historic win, her mother, Sharron Manuel, spoke about Simone’s role in the sport of swimming.

SHARRON MANUEL: When she was about 11 years old, she did come to me one day. We were just home having casual conversation. And she asked me a question about why she didn’t see many others like herself in the sport of swimming. And I didn’t have an answer for it immediately. And I said, “That’s a good question. I don’t know. So, let’s look it up.” And so we got on the internet, and we looked up information, and we kind of just pulled different articles and started reading. And I think, for her, that was the moment that she realized that she had a bigger role to play in what she was doing in the sport of swimming.

AMY GOODMAN: So that is the mother of Simone Manuel. You mentioned the shot put gold, Michelle Carter. What is her story?

JESSE WASHINGTON: Michelle Carter, the Shot Diva, she is the daughter of a Super Bowl winner and a shot put gold medalist, Michael Carter. He dad played nose tackle and won three rings with the 49ers. She is interesting because she says, “Hey, I’m in a sport here”—she—I asked her a question at the news conference, and she responded by saying, “A lot of people don’t even look at us as women,” which is a tough thing to say. “We’re big. We’re athletes. We’re out here getting sweaty.” So she maintains her beauty at all time. After she won the gold medal, it appeared briefly that she was crying. She was actually reapplying her lipstick. And she embraces her femininity. She also embraces her size. On the official U.S. Olympic website, she’s listed as 5’9”, 210. That is not the dimensions of a woman whom mainstream America would consider beautiful; however, she is a beautiful woman. She embraces that. And she helps other women of all sizes and colors say, “Hey, be happy with who you are. Do you, and you will do better.” So, I think that that’s important thing for women, and particularly for black women who have been hit with a lot of body image issues over the years.

It was really inspiring to see her win gold on her final attempt, when she defeated what someone called the Michael Phelps of the shot put, who happens to be Steven Adams from the Oklahoma City Thunder’s big sister. And when I say big sister, this woman was definitely a big sister.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Michelle Carter—

JESSE WASHINGTON: But Michelle Carter took her out and won the gold on her final attempt.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Michelle Carter, the first American woman to win a shot put medal at the Olympics in 56 years, coached by her dad, as you said, who won a silver in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. They’re the first father-daughter to win medals in the same Olympic event. This is Michelle speaking Sunday.

MICHELLE CARTER: We already have a place in history. I’m just kind of adding to what’s already there. And so, I think having that kind of mindset takes that pressure off, because I’m not really trying to make my own story, I’m already adding to a story that’s already there. I’m like, I’m starting a new chapter or the next book or something like that. So, I can’t say—I definitely can’t take away anything that he’s done, because it’s helped groom me to the athlete I am today.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there you have the shot put winner Michelle Carter speaking after the Olympics. We’re going to go to break, and when we come back, we’re going to, in addition to being joined by Jesse Washington, senior writer for The Undefeated, we’re going to be joined by Anthony Ervin, who was the oldest swimming champ in Olympic history. Stay with us.

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Meet American Olympian Anthony Ervin: The Oldest-Ever Individual Olympic Swimming Gold Medalist

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