OMAHA, Neb. – When Simone Manuel whirled around to see the “1” next to her name, months of emotion came out.
She closed her eyes, folded her hands in prayer, and struggled to hold back the tears.
Abbey Weitzeil, the woman Manuel had just beaten, jumped over the rope with a big smile – so happy for her friend that she didn’t mind finishing second on the chaotic 50-meter freestyle Sunday in the USA satisfied to give Olympic swimming tests.
Everyone in the stands jumped up and greeted Manuel’s persistence with applause that shook the Omaha arena.
Days after being revealed that she was diagnosed with Overtraining Syndrome, Manuel delivered the most moving moment in all of the US Olympic trials on his final night.
It was all or nothing for Manuel, whose Olympic hopes ended in a frantic run from one end of the pool to the other.
She was there first, including a trip to Tokyo and the chance to make more history – five years after becoming the first black woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming competition.
“Most of all, I’m relieved,” she said. “Today was perhaps the longest day of my life and the longest 50 of my life.”
While Manuel is returning to the Olympics, Nathan Adrian’s application for a fourth appearance at the Summer Games failed when he finished third in the men’s 50’s free.
Caeleb Dressel combined his American record with another dominant performance, which was about half a body length ahead of Michael Andrew in 21.04 seconds.
Dressel will compete in three individual races at the Olympics, not to mention at least three relays. Plenty of chances to live up to the hype as America’s next big swimming star after Michael Phelps’ resignation.
“It’s brutal, the pressure. I like it,” said Dressel. “I’m glad we did well and in a month we can have a little more fun.”
Andrew won his third individual race in the Olympics by finishing second in 21.48 seconds, while Adrian was next with 21.73.
Dressel hopped on the train rope and splashed the water while an amiable Adrian came by to congratulate the winner.
32-year-old Adrian survived testicular cancer and came to Omaha as a new father. He hoped to crown the turbulent journey with a fourth Olympiad, but the eight-time medalist failed to qualify for the final of the 100 free and was not quite fast enough even over one round.
He was eager to see his four month old daughter Parker.
“My heart explodes just thinking about it,” said Adrian. “I’m so excited to hang out with and hold her. I look forward to a lot when I get home.”
Bobby Finke won the final of the tests and raged to victory in the 1,500 freestyle in 14 minutes and 46.06 seconds. He was about half a pool length ahead of runner-up Michael Brinegar, who scored in 15: 00.87 and is also in Tokyo.
Finke doubled his Olympic racing schedule after previously winning the 800 Free and setting a career best and fourth fastest time in the world that year in the 1,500.
“This time means a lot,” he said. “I’ve been waiting to come over to this race for a couple of years. I’ll go to Tokyo and try to improve my time.”
But this night was all about Manuel.
Her dreams were seemingly dashed when she failed to even qualify for the final of the 100 Free, which she won in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
After that disappointing performance, she opened up about the struggles she’s been through. Because her body ached, Manuel was diagnosed with what is commonly known as burnout in March, which forced her to stop exercising for three weeks.
The discharge came at the worst possible time, with the Olympics just around the corner, and Manuel was clearly not at his best in her first competition of the week.
As it turns out, opening up about her condition seemed like the greatest salvation – and getting so much support and encouragement from teammates, fans, and people she’s never met.
“I definitely think sharing this information has allowed me to swim more freely,” said Manuel. “I have a lot of hard work at the bank.”
It paid off when Manuel furiously covered the length of the pool in 24.29 and left Weitzeil behind by a hundredth of a second.
Weitzeil had already secured her place in the team with a win in the 100 freewheel, and second place also secured her 50 in Tokyo.
Nobody in the arena pulled harder for Manuel than the woman who swam next to her in the alley.
“I told her before we went out: ‘We’ll get together,'” said Weitzeil. “During the race I saw her right there. I thought, ‘Yeah! Let’s go! Come on!’ I’ve been thinking that all along. “
Manuel can’t wait to get to more Olympics. She won’t have a chance to defend her landmark Rio title, but she said she has no more complaints after the past few months.
“Even if I didn’t make it into the 100, my goal was to make it into the team,” he said. “I have to regroup and hopefully swim faster so that I can win a medal for Team USA.
“I’m glad I can walk away with my head up high.”