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Photograph: Jeff Roberson/AP

God, please, Simone Manuel thought to herself as she touched the pool wall and closed out her final heat of the US Olympic trials 50m freestyle swim race on Sunday, her last-ditch chance to stamp her ticket to Tokyo. And when she looked on high for a sign, there it was, writ large on a scoreboard inside CHI Health Center in Omaha, Nebraska: her name at the top of the list after registering a .01sec margin of victory over two-time Olympic relay medalist Abbey Weitzeil, who swiftly drew Manuel into a congratulatory bear hug.

At that point the news was still sinking in. And when it finally hit the 24-year-old Texan moments later, taking more time it seemed than even her 24.29sec swim, she rocked back under water as if newly baptized. After holding prayer hands to her face as the emotion swelled in cheeks and eyes, Manuel leaned over the lane maker and punched the water in triumph. She was back where she belonged, on the world’s biggest stage, and so soon after the gilded career she had spent practically all of her young life working toward looked for all the world to be doomed.

Heading into these Games, the Stanford product not only projected as a standout in the pool but also the kind of mainstream quadrennial star one could easily imagine on NBC with Simone Biles and Sha’Carri Richardson in, say, a dusted-off “Hot Girl Summer” promo that walks a fine line between badass and bad tast – a fitting picture of America right now, in other words. (Surely those network execs were shouting hallelujah when Manuel’s result came in.) Really, in the past five years, Manuel had distinguished herself as arguably the most feared swimmer not named Katie Ledecky. After leaving Rio with two golds and two silvers at age 20 and pillaging the 2019 World Championships for a record seven medals, Manuel looked poised to do in Tokyo what Natalie Coughlin had done in Beijing 13 years ago – mine the place for all its precious medals.

But then at last Thursday’s 100m freestyle semis, Manuel’s first event of the trials, the picture got murky. Manuel didn’t just lose. She missed the eight-woman final cut by a .02sec margin. Even more devastating than that near miss, which denies her the chance to defend her Olympic golds, was what came next. Just when it appeared as if Manuel’s blank postrace expression might tell it all, she disclosed in a 24-minute news conference that she had been diagnosed with overtraining syndrome. Mind you, this was after she had dusted the field in the 50m and 100m frees at a tune-up meet in San Antonio in March.

Simone ManuelSimone Manuel

Simone Manuel reacts after the women’s 50 freestyle on Saturday in Omaha. Photograph: Charlie Neibergall/AP

But Manuel said she had been feeling bad well beforehand. She said her symptoms ranged from the physical (heart rate spikes at rest and during light training) and mental (depression, anxiety, insomnia). “Just walking up the stairs to the pool, I was gassed,” she said, fighting through tears and a quavering voice. And then there were the moments “where I didn’t want to go to the pool because I knew it was gonna be bad. That was hard because I love this sport. That was hard for me to grasp at that time.”

When two weeks of modified training did little to change her plateauing or declining performances, she got out of the pool completely and stayed out for three weeks. No exercising. No swimming for fun. No nothing. Just her back in Houston with her family, deep inside her own head. “I isolated myself from my family,” she said. “My mom would ask me questions on the phone, and I would snap at her in times I typically wouldn’t. I had a hard time eating…” It was bad – and yet, alas, about par for the average Olympian.

Last summer HBO released a documentary titled The Weight of Gold, wherein everyone from Michael Phelps to Shaun White to Sasha Cohen paints a stark picture of the outer and inner pressures that both drive these high achievers to glory and plunge them into grief: the endless training, the constant pursuit of perfection, the tireless efforts to find the money to keep it all going – and all while barely pausing to celebrate the gains and, sometimes, even the victories. “I can honestly say, looking back on my career, I don’t think anybody really cared to help us,” says Phelps, who also narrates the film and whose struggles outside the pool are well documented. “As long as we were performing, I don’t think anything else really mattered.”

Abbey Weitzeil and Simone ManuelAbbey Weitzeil and Simone Manuel

Abbey Weitzeil and Simone Manuel of the United States react after competing in the women’s 50m freestyle final on Sunday in Omaha. Photograph: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Still, for all the credibility this problem gets from Phelps, who’s gone from selling $5 footlongs to pitching online therapy solutions, his testimony doesn’t hit quite as hard as that of Steven Holcomb. A three-time Olympic bobsled champion, Holcomb is frank about his struggles with depression that were exacerbated by a career-threatening keratoconus diagnosis and franker about contemplating killing himself until the suicide death of his close friend, Jeret Peterson, a silver medal-winning aerial skier at the Vancouver Games, set him straight. “It was kind of like, this is big,” he says in the film, “like, this is an epidemic. It’s not just him. There’s a lot of people out there that are suffering through this.” Sadly, not terribly long after his interview was recorded, Holcomb, 37, fatally overdosed on alcohol and sleeping pills at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York; skeleton racer Katie Uhlaender, another close friend, discovered his body.

On top of all this Manuel also carries the burden of her race, of course. Her 100m free medal in the Rio Games, the first individual Olympic gold by a Black woman in swimming after tying with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak, is trebly significant in a space where Black American children die from drowning at rates 5.5 times higher than white children for a slew of reasons that range from instructional to institutional. As she tried desperately to push through her personal malaise during the Olympics Covid postponement, the racial justice revolution that was boiling outside the pool – and in some cases further stoked by her fellow athletes – was not lost on her. “The last year for the Black community has been brutal,” said Manuel, the go-to source for questions about diversity and inclusion in her lily-white sport of course now that London relay champion Cullen Jones is out of the Games. “It was just another factor that can influence you, mentally, in a draining way.”

But still: she rose. She touched the wall in Omaha first, buoyed by faith, driven by determination, emboldened by the scads of little Black girls and boys across the country who see her and suddenly find the confidence to put on a swimsuit and get signed up for lessons in hope that they might one day hold their own in the water. “I continued to stay strong during this process, even when I wanted to give up,” she said. And now: she’s a grandame on the Greg Meehan-coached swim delegation that features a staggering 10 teenagers (the most since Barcelona), some of whom have never left the country or traveled for a major swimming event without a parent.

As cathartic as it would be to see Manuel turn up golden again, that she turned up at all is a triumph in itself. That she shared so freely of herself and her struggles has the potential to impact so many more who suffer in silence. And if she should lose again in Tokyo, hey, no one can say she didn’t give it her all. What’s important is that she’s OK.