There was Simone Manuel, flapping her 20-year-old legs like crazy last week inside a pool in Rio De Janeiro for 100 meters of drama. In the end, she rubbed her eyes with everybody else after she became the first African-American woman to snatch an individual gold medal in Olympic swimming.
Let's see … 10, 20, 50 …
We're watching all of this sports history unfold nearly 70 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier.
"Oh yeah. It shows we still have lots of barriers we have to conquer as African-Americans, and I can give you a whole list," said Sharon Robinson, 66, the daughter of the Brooklyn Dodgers legend who made his Major League debut on April 15, 1947, supposedly a moment that opened every slammed door in a hurry for those darker than a baseball. And, yes, Jackie-inspired progress did happen for African-Americans throughout athletics during the rest of the 20th Century and beyond. But upon further review, it happened much slower than Manuel's Olympic-record sprint to fame.
When compared to other "firsts" by African-Americans in sports, Jackie's moment was 16 years before Wendell Scott won a major stock car race, 24 years before Wilbur Jackson joined Bear Bryant's Alabama football team, 42 years before Art Shell took over the Oakland Raiders, 50 years before Tiger Woods shocked those in green jackets at Augusta National and 60 years before the Williams sisters built the foundation for their dominance of women's tennis.
Now, courtesy of Manuel ignoring the media's obsession with the Campbell sisters of Australia to produce the biggest splash of these Olympics, African-Americans continue to evolve into pioneers as the years become decades in sports. Which begs a couple of questions: Why do so many of these barriers remain, and what would Jackie think?
Robinson died in October 1972, but we have Sharon, an author of children's books on Jackie, an educational consultant to Major League Baseball and a disciple of these 2016 Summer Games. On the day that Manuel joined immortality, Sharon had a dilemma while trying to inspire youngsters during a seminar in the ballroom of a Cincinnati hotel.
There was no television.
To translate, Sharon couldn't watch Manuel or any of the other Olympians that kept her captive during the previous days.
"What's interesting is that I was in the mode with these kids about achievement and competition and self-esteem, all of the things that Manuel is about as an Olympic swimmer," Sharon said. "I mean, that had been our whole message that week, and I had been sharing their essays and their stories about all of the things they've overcome. We talked about how achievement allows you to build your self-esteem, and how self-esteem isn't something that just stays up. You have to keep working at it for a lifetime."
Sharon laughed, because she thought about the sight of this: Between her talks and other activity in the ballroom, she kept morphing into Allyson Felix by dashing toward the nearest elevator. Once on the sixth floor, she hustled to her room to catch this Olympic moment and that one.
No way, Sharon was going to miss THE one.
"So I rushed into my room, and there she goes," said Sharon, giggling with the memory of Manuel taking her mark in mostly obscurity before swimming faster and then faster than that to touch the wall in 52.70 seconds to tie Canada's Penny Oleksiak for the win. "For a while, I was saying to myself, 'Now, wait a minute. Am I seeing this correctly? Is this really happening?' They eventually put graphics around her on television to show those of us who were in doubt that she really did finish in the lead, and it served to say that you're seeing what you think you're seeing. It was so cool."
It was this cool: Sharon shared this Jackie-like moment with the only living person who would understand it more than anybody else …
"I called her, and she was like, 'I saw it,' and she was so happy it happened, because she doesn't miss much," said Sharon, referring to her 94-year-old mother who lives in Manhattan. Since Rachel married Jackie the year before his Major League debut, she saw all of the turmoil he suffered from fans, opponents and even teammates as baseball's first African-American player. She also encountered racism in general, and that included the kind that banned African-Americans from public swimming pools. When African-Americans were allowed into the water, they often watched whites scramble to backyard pools of their own or to the farthest beach.
There also was that matter of many African-Americans never learning how to swim, and both Rachel and Sharon know as much firsthand. Yep, Jackie was life's ultimate Superman, but water was his Kryptonite. Even so, he remained calm yet fiercely competitive during his Baseball Hall of Fame career despite battling racial slurs and flying objects. He also was a quarterback, running back and safety at UCLA, where he prospered during the winter as a swingman in basketball. When you add that to his becoming the best long jumper for a year in college track and field while playing baseball for the Bruins, he was UCLA's first athlete to letter in four different sports during a given season. He even starred as a prolific tennis player along the way to several amateur titles.
He couldn't swim, though.
"Here he was operating as a great athlete overall, just proficient at everything he ever did, but yet my dad never learned to swim, was never comfortable swimming and wasn't even attracted to water," Sharon said, before mentioning the wonderfully bizarre. Jackie, Rachel and their three children (Jackie Jr., Sharon and David) spent years living by a lake in Stamford, Conn. Adding to that contradiction, the kids were swimmers, and they had this obsession. They each wished to become the first of the Robinson clan to swim across their mile-long lake without a name.
"I learned to swim at two, so I was the best swimmer, because I was always fearless in the pool," Sharon said, "but my older brother, Jackie, was the first to cross the lake."
Along with swimming, the Robinson kids rode boats across the water. They fished. They collected pollywogs. They went ice skating, but not before Jackie would ignore his fear of water.
"Dad would go out to the deepest part of the lake to make sure the ice was solid before we were allowed to go on it, because he knew that was our source of fun," said Sharon, who wrote about her father's ritual in "Testing The Ice," which was one of her many children's books on Jackie. She had another water memory: She said she and her brothers relished Spring Trainings in Florida, partly to watch Jackie and his famous teammates amidst the sunshine and palm trees, but mostly to enjoy the ever-present pools.
At least the ones that weren't segregated.
That said, Manuel just proved these are different times for African-American swimmers in several ways.
"What Simone Manuel just did is send a signal that black kids may be more interested in the sport now," Sharon said. "That is so important. I've been going to the Caribbean since I was a young child, and I lived there, and I've seen Caribbean kids who aren't able to swim and aren't able to save themselves if they had to. For me, personally, I'm going to get all the tapes [of Simone swimming], so my six-year-old granddaughter [Jessica] and 10-year-old grandson [Luke] can watch them. I've been trying to get them to love swimming, because they've been in the water since they were infants.
"Jessica does enjoy the water, but she's been tumbling since she was very little, so she's a natural gymnast. She's got a lot of athletic genes in her, and I want her to be inspired by both of these Simones."
The other Simone is Simone Biles, the African-American gymnast who grabbed her fourth gold medal Tuesday night during the Rio Games. Sharon wouldn't mind Jessica becoming that Simone. It's just that Simone Manuel sits deepest in Sharon's heart, especially since Jackie's middle child spent part of her childhood in Connecticut doing water ballet performances in the pool of their next-door neighbors.
"I've been a swimmer all of my life, so as a swimmer, and to see what Simone Manuel did, it's like, 'Oh, God, finally," Sharon said, making you wonder if Jackie is uttering the same thing to The Big Dodger In The Sky.