Simone Manuel returns from overtraining syndrome with her eyes on the Olympic Games in Paris

Simone Manuel gives a thumbs up after competing in the Pro Swim Series event on Thursday, January 11, 2024 in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Manuel was the first black female swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal.  Now she is returning from a grueling bout of overtraining that saw her body fail ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Games.
Simone Manuel gives a thumbs up after competing in the Pro Swim Series event on Thursday, January 11, 2024 in Knoxville, Tennessee. Manuel was the first black female swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. Now she is returning from a grueling bout of overtraining that saw her body fail ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Games.George Walker IV/AP

ATLANTA (AP) — As Simone Manuel zigzags her way through a tight deck packed with swimmers, she is reminded that there are still some things she hates about her sport.

“I’m not sure a busy pool deck is always the most fun,” she says, grinning. “I don’t think a swimmer enjoys that that much.”

Not that she’s complaining.

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Not after everything she’s been through.

Manuel, the first Black female swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal, is coming back from a debilitating case of overtraining syndrome, which saw her body crumble ahead of the 2021 Tokyo Games after a brilliant turn five years earlier in Rio de Janeiro , where she claimed two gold and two silver coins.

Manuel struggled to make the U.S. team for Japan, only earning a bronze medal as an anchor in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. Once the flame was extinguished, she was forced to give up all activities for seven months – even something as mundane as a light walk – to allow herself to heal both physically and mentally.

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“It’s probably the most boring months of my life,” she told The Associated Press. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking about my feelings, what happened, and processing what happened, because I think when you’re in it, you’re kind of in survival mode. I really had to process it and come to terms with everything.”

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Heading into the U.S. Olympic Trials, which begin Saturday in Indianapolis, Manuel is in a much better place.

She’s as determined as ever to make it to her third Olympic Games, but she knows there are things much more important than touching the wall first.

Like making sure she takes care of herself.

It’s a lesson that more and more elite athletes—from fellow swimmer Caeleb Dressel to gold medal gymnast Simone Biles to tennis star Naomi Osaki—are heeding when they’re overwhelmed by the demands of their sport.

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“I’ve always been someone who likes to dream big, who has very aggressive goals,” says Manuel, who claimed her historic gold when she took first place in the 100 freestyle at the 2016 Rio Games. “It would be unfair for me to lower my standards. But at the same time, I have to give myself grace because this journey is like no other I’ve ever experienced in this sport.”

After her long layoff under doctor’s orders – which was accompanied by the inevitable doubt that she would ever become a top swimmer again – Manuel seems like himself again in the pool.

The 27-year-old Texan set her best time in the 100 free since 2019 during a competition last month to establish herself as one of the top sprint candidates.

“I’m very happy with where she is right now,” said one of her coaches, Bob Bowman, who is best known for his work with the most decorated Olympian of them all, Michael Phelps. “She’s pretty close to her top level.”

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Manuel moved to Arizona State University in suburban Phoenix to work with Bowman and his top assistant, Herbie Behm — a move that had a huge impact on her recovery.

“When I met Bob, I felt like I had a really good relationship with him,” Manuel said. “He really understood my experience with being overtrained, and that was extremely crucial for me. “I wanted to be able to talk to my new coach about that experience, what it was like for me, mentally and physically, and for them to talk to me about it, but also understand what that was like and how they could help me move forward.”

Bowman’s acknowledgment of Manuel’s condition was in stark contrast to the lack of understanding — outside the sport and even at the pool — when she disclosed her condition. Overtraining syndrome is a very real problem, but some felt she was just making excuses for her poor performance in the run-up to Tokyo.

She even thought about quitting the sport.

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“I have achieved a lot in this sport and I think some of the reactions to what happened to me were not entirely kind,” she said. “I think in my mind I thought, ‘I don’t need to put myself in a position to be vulnerable to the world again just to not accept that what happened to me was real and that this is not an excuse .'”

Experts say overtraining syndrome – also known as burnout – is a very real concern for all elite athletes, who must walk that very fine line between working harder than their competitors without reaching the point of diminishing returns.

Every body, even those who win gold medals, has its limits.

“It doesn’t give the body enough time to recover from intense exercise that is associated with fatigue and a lack of motivation,” says Dr. Paul Arciero, professor in the Department of Sports Medicine and Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh. “One of the telltale signs is a decline in performance.”

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That’s exactly what happened to Manuel, who had always thought – like so many of her fellow athletes and coaches – that the only way to keep improving was to stress her body even more. As the Tokyo Olympics approached, she couldn’t understand why her times kept getting worse, even though she felt like she was working harder than ever.

Dr. Robert Trasolini, an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at Northwell Health Orthopedic Institute in New York, said Olympic athletes — who spend countless hours pursuing a goal that can only be achieved every four years — are particularly susceptible to overtraining. syndrome.

“If you go too far and see a decrease in activity, that should be the bell that says, ‘Hey, I have to stop,’” Trasolini said. “But that’s hard for an athlete working toward a goal, especially when there’s no immediate gratification.”

Proper nutrition and adequate recovery time are critical to preventing overtraining syndrome. It is also imperative to have a coaching and support staff that can recognize the warning signs, which can appear anywhere from resting heart rate to blood pressure.

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Arciero also recommends that any elite athlete, who has gotten where he or she is largely through single-minded focus, look for an activity that provides a sense of purpose outside the arena.

“It could be knitting, or reading, or doing some art,” he said.

To that end, Manuel has created her own foundation to expand swimming to Black communities and other groups largely left out of a sport that remains largely white in the US.

She’s not trying to find the next Simone Manuel. She simply wants to introduce more people of color to a lifestyle, to show them how fun it is to spend a day in the water.

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“We won’t see more diversity in sports if it doesn’t start at the grassroots level,” Manuel said. “Swimming should be something that is really positive within the black community, but historically that has not been the case.”

Bowman, who left Arizona State in April to take over the storied swimming program at the University of Texas, continues to work with Manuel as she prepares for the trials, though it’s more of a long-distance relationship now. She remained in Tempe to receive most of her training with Behm, who succeeded Bowman as head coach of the Sun Devils.

Manuel is in a much better place than he was three summers ago. She got married at the end of last year. She’s swimming fast again.

“I’ve always paid close attention to my body when it comes to swimming, but I just learned that it’s very important to breathe,” Manuel said. “It is very important to not only be in tune with your body, but to really listen to it.”

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