Simone Manuel is headed to her third Olympics. GETTY IMAGES

Three years on from the devastating loss of form and confidence that turned Simone Manuel's Tokyo Olympic dream into a nightmare, the US swim star has found "healing" at the US Olympic swimming trials. It's not a venue known for promoting peace of mind —a meeting where only the top two finishers in each final can secure the longed-for Olympic berth and some of the best swimmers in the world are destined to be disappointed.

Manuel, whose 100m freestyle victory at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games made her the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic swimming medal, was squeezed out of those top two places in the 100m free on Wednesday. But her fourth-place finish sends her to Paris as part of the 4X100m free relay squad, a third Olympics she could never have predicted when over-training system sapped her strength, drained her emotionally and made her appearance at the Tokyo Olympics a joyless exercise.

"It definitely wasn't the result I wanted, but when I really think about how far I've come and the mountain that I had to climb, it's really important for me to look back and be proud of myself for continuing to fight through this process and believe in myself," said Manuel, who can still book an individual Paris berth in the 50m free.

"I think anybody who really knows my journey knows how hard it was, knows how hard it was to get back into the pool, to be cleared to get back into the pool. Going to practice and getting my butt kicked every day, missing intervals, having to modify things until I finally got strong enough to even complete a whole week of work. I basically started from ground zero," Manuel added.

From her pioneering performance in Rio Manuel would go on to win five gold medals at the 2017 world championships and four more world titles in 2019. But she arrived at the pandemic-delayed Tokyo trials a shell of her former self having struggled to find a cause for the lack of progress in training, insomnia and crippling fatigue. Things would get even worse after Tokyo, when she followed doctor's orders to take a rest from even the lightest of physical activity.

A swimmer who found her sport "a very lonely place" felt even more isolated, but the cheers of more than 20,000 fans at Lucas Oil Stadium have renewed her sense of belonging.

"Being in this arena and being surrounded by these fans honestly has been so healing," Manuel said. "Just to know that these people are just excited to see me swim again, swim at this level again is something that's really special, and I don't take it for granted.

"It's something that I think I'm appreciating even more, that I'm not as lonely as I thought I was. There's people that really care and are excited to see me swim and be an inspiration."