Blacks have had a rich swimming history dating back to pre-slavery days in Africa, but in this country fear and racism have played a huge historical part in keeping them away from it.
There was Jim Crow in the South, and de facto Jim Crow in the North kept Blacks from public swimming pools during most of the 20th century. There also was the misinformation, such as Blacks not being as buoyant as Whites, being heavier and not liking the water.
This, coupled with an ever-prevalent fear of the water among Blacks themselves, has virtually kept swimming in the “country-club” category of activities in the eyes of many U.S.-born Blacks.
Basketball and football are more prominent among Blacks. Many Black parents would rather “put their children in those sports that they can see them getting a [college] scholarship or making a lot of money one day doing it” than put them in swimming, admits Lee Pitts, a nationally renowned swim instructor. “A lot of times we know that Black people see sports as a way to obtain a comfortable lifestyle.
“We don’t have young Black kids getting into swimming at early ages and dedicating themselves to be completive swimmers,” Pitts, who has produced a swim instructional DVD, told me during a recent phone interview from his Florida home.
There are no “Black Michael Phelps” for Black youth to emulate. Yet there is Cullen Jones, who was Phelps’ teammate on the U.S.’s gold-medal winning 4×100 meter freestyle relay race at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Maritza Correia was the first Black female swimmer to make the U.S. Olympic team and won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics.
“You have to dedicate your life completely to swimming at an early age,” Pitts says of those who would be champions. “You might get an endorsement if you win a gold medal,” although such corporate deals are usually reserved for Whites such as Phelps. Both Correia and Jones also got athletic apparel promotional contracts, “but they are not household [names]” as is Phelps, Pitts quickly points out.
Among nearly 275 male swimmers and divers at this year’s NCAA men’s swimming championships held at the U of M Aquatic Center in March, a half dozen or so were Black. “We often won’t see Blacks swimming unless they are at the top [Division I] level,” notes Pitts.
Senior Josh Daniels was a member of the winning 400-yard freestyle relay that clinched California’s first NCAA swimming championship in 31 years. His brother Jeff, a junior at USC, also was there. The two siblings competed head to head in one event, the 50 freestyle.
Their mother got them in swimming early, says Jeff Daniels. “There’s a pool not far from where we live [in Fresno, California]. I got into swimming when I was four, and my brother when he was five or six.”
Asked about any sibling rivalry aspect, Josh says, “Absolutely there was. We weren’t too serious about it and joked about it a little bit before the race. But when it’s race time…he beat me a few times, but most of the time, being the older brother, I get the best of him. Yeah, there is a little rivalry.
“Usually when I am racing against him, I always tend to go a little faster just because I don’t want to lose [to him]. And I think he goes a little faster as well,” notes Josh.
Florida senior Brett Fraser is a 13-time All-American and competed for his native Cayman Islands in the 2008 Olympics. He and his older brother Shawne, who also swam at Florida, started swimming at a young age.
“We had a pool where we live,” the Cayman Islands native disclosed. “It was something that we enjoyed. It just grew up from there.”
“My swimmers that I recruit always have been the minority at their [high] school, so they want to come to a Historically Black school,” notes North Carolina A&T Swimming Coach Shawn Hendrix. She has been there for 13 seasons, where she has built one of the top HBCU swimming programs in the country. Her Aggies have won the last three HBCU championships.
Hendrix believes that urban facilities such as recreation centers should have swim programs that are more accessible and affordable to Black youth. “An average swimsuit is $125-$150 dollars, and that one suit doesn’t last you the entire swim season. [Swimming] is very different economically [from other sports].”
While increasing the numbers of Black collegiate swimmers is fine and dandy, Pitts believes “there is too much emphasis on competitive swimming as it relates to Black people. The key is to have more Black people swimming in general, to make it a common thing.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to chall firstname.lastname@example.org.