OMAHA, Neb. — When Simone Manuel whipped around to see the “1” beside her name, months of emotions came pouring out.
She closed her eyes, brought her hands together in prayer and struggled to hold back the tears.
Abbey Weitzeil, the woman she had just beaten, leaped over the lane rope with a huge smile — so happy for her friend that she didn’t mind settling for the runner-up spot.
Everyone in the stands leaped to their feet, saluting Manuel’s perseverance with an ovation that rocked the arena.
Days after revealing she was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome, Manuel — The first Black woman to capture an individual gold medal in swimming — provided the most stirring moment of the entire U.S. Olympic swimming trials by winning the chaotic 50-meter freestyle Sunday night.
With one hectic dash from one end of the pool to the other, Manuel locked up a trip to Tokyo and the chance to make more history.
“More than anything, I’m relieved,” she said. “Today may have been the longest day of my life and the longest 50 of my life.”
While Manuel is heading back to the Olympics, Nathan Adrian’s bid for a fourth appearance at the Summer Games came up just short when he finished third in the men’s 50 free.
Caeleb Dressel tied his American record with another dominating performance, touching about a half-body length ahead of Michael Andrew in 21.04 seconds.
Get ready, Tokyo. Dressel will have three individual races at these games, and he’ll also be swimming at least three relays.
Andrew earned his third individual event at the Olympics in 21.48, while Adrian was next at 21.73.
Dressel hopped on the lane rope and splashed the water, while a smiling Adrian came over to congratulate the successor to Michael Phelps as America’s biggest male swimming star.
The 32-year-old Adrian beat testicular cancer and arrived at Omaha as a new father. He hoped to cap the journey with a fourth Olympics, but the eight-time medalist failed to qualify for the final of the 100 free and wasn’t quite fast enough over one lap.
He was eager to see his 4-month-old daughter, Parker.
“My heart kind of explodes just thinking about it,” Adrian said. “I’m so excited go hang out with her and hold her. I’ve got a lot to look forward to when I get home.”
Bobby Finke won the final event of trials, romping to victory in the 1,500 freestyle in 14 minutes, 46.06 seconds. He was about a half-pool length ahead of runner-up Michael Brinegar, who touched in 15:00.87.
Finke doubled up his schedule in Tokyo after previously winning the 800 free.
But this night was all about Manuel.
Her hopes were seemingly dashed when she failed to even qualify for the final of the 100 free, the event she won five years ago in Rio de Janeiro.
After that disappointing performance, she opened up about the struggles she’s been going through. With her body just not feeling right, Manuel was diagnosed in March with the condition commonly known as burnout, forcing her to suspend her training for three weeks.
The layoff came at the worst possible time, and Manuel was clearly not at her best in her first event of the week.
As it turned out, opening up about her condition — and receiving so much support and encouragement — seemed to be greatest salve.
“I definitely think sharing that information allowed me to swim more free,” Manuel said. “I have a lot of hard work in the bank.”
It paid off when Manuel furiously covered the length of the pool in 24.29 to edge Weitzeil, who already had locked up her spot on the team with a victory in the 100 free, by one-hundredth of a second.
Now, they’re both heading to Tokyo.
“I told her before we walked out, ‘We’re coming out together,'” Weitzeil said. “During the race, I saw her right there. I was like , ‘Yes! Let’s go! C’mon!’ That’s what I was thinking the whole time”
Manuel can’t wait to get to another Olympics. She won’t get a chance to defend her groundbreaking title from Rio, but she’s got no complaints after the past few months.
“Even though I didn’t make it in the 100, my goal was to make to the team,” he said. “I’ll have to regroup and hopefully swim faster so I can win a medal for Team USA, I’m glad I can walk away with my head held high.”