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Simone Manuel supports Kaepernick’s right to his opinion

‘If he feels that’s what he wants to do to make a difference, then so be it’

Olympic gold-medal swimmer Simone Manuel spoke out Monday in support of embattled San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand during the national anthem before games.

On a conference call with multiple media outlets, including the New York Times, Houston Chronicle and USA Today, the 20-year-old Manuel talked openly about the quarterback’s right to protest.

“I think that we all have opinions, and whether people agree with you or not, I think that if you feel strongly about a situation and want to stand up and use your platform as an athlete or celebrity to address those situations, then you should, and [Kaepernick] did,” Manuel said. “And it’s important to him. And some people agree with him and some people don’t, but it was important to him. And if he feels that’s what he wants to do to make a difference, then so be it.”

While Manuel, who was the first black woman to win an individual medal at the Olympic Games when she took gold in the 100-meter freestyle earlier this month, didn’t outright support the quarterback’s decision to sit, she respects his right to stand up for black Americans, something the Stanford swimmer is not unfamiliar with.

Following the Sugar Land, Texas, native’s history-making — and record-breaking — win in Rio de Janeiro, she put her victory in the larger context of African-Americans and swimming in America. “Coming into the race I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it is not ‘Simone, the black swimmer,’ ” she told reporters on Aug. 12.

That day, according to Manuel, will come when those in the media decide not to put as much emphasis on race. “I mean, obviously it’s a rare thing because I was the first, but just kind of how it’s portrayed in the media is a little different than if someone else were to achieve that goal.” But at the same time, “What I did kind of helped people believe that they can also do the same thing, and representation really matters. So hopefully what I’ve done will inspire other people to get into the sport, and hopefully continue it on into possibly the Olympic level like myself.”

This was not the first time Manuel spoke about the importance of diversity in swimming, telling USA Swimming in 2014 that she wanted to “increase awareness that swimming is an option for black people. … There’s such a stereotype and you don’t see a lot of us swimming. I’m hoping to lead by example.”

That, too, applies to that one thing keeping black women out of swimming pools: hair. “I think that is definitely a big issue with females and swimming, because hair is really important in our culture. … I think just teaching children at a young age, especially if they get into the sport, that it’s just hair, it’ll grow back. Or that it doesn’t define you. And that your beauty is not just in that will help them realize that ‘I can sacrifice this physical thing to do something great with my life.’ ”

Since Manuel has returned to the United States, she’s appeared at the Arthur Ashe Kids Day festival in New York City, and on Aug. 28 served as the coin toss captain at the Houston Texans-Arizona Cardinals preseason game in Houston. This fall, she will return to Stanford —with a full course load — where she’ll team up with fellow Olympic medalists Lia Neal and Katie Ledecky.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"