They are the Olympic swimmers nobody saw on prime-time TV on Friday night, the ones who weren’t fast enough to advance from the 50-meter freestyle morning heats, some finishing 15 seconds behind the best women in their event.
But many of them are trailblazers in their countries, and they were inspired by American Simone Manuel, who a night earlier became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. They didn’t get Twitter shout-outs from LeBron James and Serena Williams or a hug from Katie Ledecky, like Manuel did, but they feel a kinship with her because they, too, are changing attitudes about ethnicity and swimming.
Naomi Ruele, a 19-year-old sophomore at Florida International University, is the first black female swimmer representing her native Botswana in the Olympics. She was one of 88 women entered in the 50-meter freestyle, finished second in her heat Friday, but her time of 26.23 seconds ranked 47th overall — two seconds off top qualifier Permille Blume of Denmark and not good enough to advance to the semifinals.
Although she was disappointed with her time, she took solace in knowing that she is a role model for young girls in Botswana, a nation of 2.1 million people and two 50-meter swimming pools.
“[On Thursday] Simone won the 100 free, and that shows how much we’ve come along and it shows other people you don’t have to be scared to try something new,” said Ruele, the Conference USA Swimmer of the Year. “Simone’s win resonated with me as a black woman. It was definitely something I found inspiring, and I hope I inspire other young women back home to get into swimming.”
Nada Al-Bedwawi was also moved by Manuel’s historic swim. She is 18 years old, the first female Olympic swimmer for United Arab Emirates and was her country’s flag bearer in the Opening Ceremonies. She swam her 50-meter heat in 33.42 seconds, which was 9.19 seconds slower than the top time and ranked 78th overall.
Nevertheless, she was all smiles as she walked out of the Olympic Aquatics Stadium pool.
“I am the first Emerati to represent my country, and it’s such a great honor and I really hope when I get back to the country I can have some sort of campaign to encourage women in sports, especially swimming,” she said. “Hopefully, we’ll come back to the Olympics in four years with more than just one female, maybe 10 or 20.”
She is hopeful that doors will continue to open for women in Muslim countries.
“My parents were really supportive, my country is encouraged by my swimming, and we’re going to slowly start to change the mentality,” Al-Bedwawi said. “We are doing it in UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and hopefully Saudi Arabia will try to get there.
“My main goal is to break down these gender barriers and pave the way for other female swimmers, because especially in our country, people are reluctant to start something new. I have friends who really want to pursue sports, but because of cultural barriers they weren’t able to.”
Angelika Sita Ouedraogo is an electrical engineering student from Burkina Faso, a nation not known for its swim team. But she aims to change that. She found herself training in the same pool as Michael Phelps this week and considers that her Olympic victory.
“When I see Michael, I know it’s not the same condition as me,” Ouedraogo said. “Not the same training. Not the same technical team. But I want to be the best and if I have to work with what I have, I will work with it and maybe I will get better. Michael is here, and me, too. We are the same, in the same Olympics. It’s the heart. If you want it, it doesn’t matter your color or your country.”
Manuel was swimming her own 50-meter heat Friday morning and didn’t get to hear the words of her fellow trailblazers. But she would have been proud. After she tied Canadian Penny Oleksiak for the 100-meter freestyle gold medal late Thursday night, the Stanford swimmer and Sugar Land, Texas, native said:
“It means a lot, especially with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality,” Manuel said. “This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. … Coming into the race I tried to take 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.’
“The gold medal wasn’t just for me. It was for people who came before me and inspired me to stay in this sport, and for people who believe that they can’t do it. I hope that I’m an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. They might be pretty good at it.”