OTS Affected Swimmer Simone Manuel’s Performance—And Her Mental Health


Two-time Olympic gold medalist Simone Manuel is discussing her experience with overtraining syndrome, or OTS, in a new documentary on her life. It’s a condition that occurs when an athlete engages in repetitive intense training that has an adverse effect on performance.

In the documentary short produced by TOGETHXR titled Head Above Water, the olympian opened up about how the condition has affected her career over the past couple of years. As the first Black woman to ever win an individual Olympic gold in swimming, she faced a lot of pressure, and was pushed hard to live up to expectations.

In January of 2021, Manuel expressed concerns about her performance to her coach after an intrasquad swim meet at her school, Stanford University, and found that her worries were brushed aside.

“I kind of go to my coach and I’m like, ‘I don’t feel good about these performances,’” Manuel shared. “And he’s like, ‘Oh, you’re doing fine. You’ll feel better soon.’ So I just kind of brush it off and continue to move on.”

But the star swimmer was clearly on to something, as she failed to qualify for the 100-meter freestyle final at the 2021 Tokyo Games. It was the same event for which she won gold at the Olympics in Rio in 2016 and back-to-back World Championship titles in 2017 and 2019. 

“I like to think of myself as someone who has a high swimming IQ, so I’m very aware of what’s going on with my body,” she added. “I just knew that things were off. My stroke wasn’t feeling the same. My rhythm was off. And I remember having conversations with my coach and asking him, ‘Well, how do you think I’m training?’ ‘Oh, you’re training really well. This is the best training I’ve ever seen you have.’ And I’m like, ‘But my times are slower.’ I wish I would have just told him, ‘No, I’m not going to come in.’”

During the March 2021 Pro Swim Series in San Antonio, Manuel’s performance declined so much that she wasn’t able compete in all of the events. 

“I was just sore,” she said. “I couldn’t get my heart rate down. I wasn’t sleeping, and ended up going to the doctor, and the doctor tells me that I’m overtrained.”

Shortly after, the athlete went to the doctor and discovered she had OTS. Some symptoms of the condition include unusual muscle soreness post-workout, delays in recovery, performance declines, prolonged fatigue, low energy, poor sleep, depression, anger, or confusion. 

Despite Manuel’s diagnosis, her coach still instructed her to train and her progress continued to decline, as well as her mental health. It wasn’t until Manuel’s doctor recommended that she take a three-week break if she wanted to make it to the Olympic trials that she paused to rest. The 26-year-old did end up competing at the Olympic trials but finished 9th in the semi finals. After sharing her diagnosis, she was also met with doubt, denial, and gaslighting—something Black women tend to face in the healthcare system, at the workplace, and out in the world at large.

“People didn’t believe that I actually was overtrained,” she said in the documentary. “People said that I was distracted by all my other sponsor obligations, and that’s why I didn’t perform well. That I became lazy and my success went to my head. It’s really hard to be vulnerable in that space because it’s so easy for people to say they don’t believe me. I don’t get the empathy or understanding that I deserve.”

Although the 100-meter freestyle didn’t work out at the Tokyo Games, Manuel did qualify for the 50 free the same year. Overall, she admits that trip to the Olympics wasn’t enjoyable. 

“I ended up winning that and making the team, but Tokyo was not fun — at all,” said the gold medalist. “I don’t think I would have declined my spot to go to the Olympics, but I didn’t expect it to be that hard. I just wasn’t prepared for what that would be like, to go watch people in the 100M free, to not be on relays that I had been on for years. It’s really hard to step up on the starting blocks or the starting line and know that you’re not prepared at all. It’s like, ‘Why am I even here?’”

Manuel goes on to say that what happened during the 2021 Olympics was a learning experience for her and being “overtrained was unfortunate.” She adds that she wants to protect her body both physically and mentally. The award-winning athlete has also learned the importance of spending time with loved ones, far away from the pool.

“I think I’ve sacrificed a lot, but in order to continue to be happy in this sport, I want to spend more time with my family,” she said. 

“Going into the next chapter of swimming would be trying to block out all the noise,” Manuel reflected. “I just want to swim with no pressure or expectations from anybody, even myself. Which I don’t know what that looks like, but I think that’s what’s next for me and that’s definitely going to be the focus: falling back in love with this sport and just being happy doing it. And then get back to competing on the highest level and hopefully winning some more medals.”

Manuel is on an upward trend in terms of her performance. She finished third place in the 50 free at the 2023 Pro Swim Series.

See the full documentary below.

Article continues after video.

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