Last summer, I dared myself to make swimming a habit. I really had no excuse not to. Georgian summers are hell hot. With proper care, my hair could and would tolerate the chlorine exposure. I lived in a county with a great and cheap year-round aquatics program. The nearest pool is a five-minute drive from my house. I no longer gave a damn about being seen in a bathing suit. And finally, I am able to float and do indeed possess the self-taught ability to swim.
I not only dared myself to get in the pool at least once a week, I upped the ante by challenging myself to swim ONLY in the deep water. Admittedly, I was a nervous wreck that first time. Despite the presence of lifeguards and plenty of other fellow swimmers, I had to prod myself into my swimsuit, out of the locker room, and into the water. I KNEW I could swim, but I still felt fearful because I’d never swam for an extended period of time in deep water. Yes, I’d floated for about 30 seconds in the middle of Lake Berryessa one summer, but I had immediately pulled myself back into the boat and refused to get back into the water without a life vest. As I lowered my body into the diving well, I felt the same crack-addicted butterflies in my belly that I’d felt in the lake.
However, I did NOT drown. I DID float. I DID swim. And what’s more, I realized that the experience of swimming in deep water is not the same as paddling along in 3 ft, 4 ft, or 5ft depths. The sensation of floating in that deep water for the first time was a soul-cleansing weightlessness. The more I relaxed, the lighter I felt, and the more empowered I was to face and overcome other difficulties in my life. With swimming, I had to remind myself to trust my inherent strength and ability. Plus, I had to understand and trust the water (environment). I’d had no idea that swimming could be such a transcendental, meditative and cathartic experience. I’d never spoken about it before to anyone Black, White or otherwise. And I realized that all the Black folks I knew who didn’t or couldn’t swim likely hadn’t discussed this aspect of swimming either.
In America, history (and fear) has taught us that swimming is simply not a “Black thing.” But history is wrong. The BS “scientific theories” about us being less buoyant are wrong. The fact that we were prohibited from swimming during slavery was wrong. The denial of access to public schools and swimming programs during the 1920s, 1930s and so on was wrong. The failure of cities and counties to build municipal pools and pools with depths greater than 5ft in predominantly Black communities is wrong. And the notion that swimming is only for White people is wrong.
In fact, we have many examples of Black folks taking up swimming, loving it and excelling at it. Just check out this excerpt from LittleOtterSwim.com:
- Maritza Correia McClendon was the first African-American female swimmer to set an American and world swimming record (2002, NCAA championships, 50 and 100 Free); First African-American Female to make the US Olympic Swim team (2004); First black female swimmer to win a NCAA Division I Championship (2002, Georgia, 50 Free); First African-American female to win an Olympic medal (2004 Olympic Games, 400 Free Relay).
- Cullen Jones was the first African-American male to hold a world record in swimming as a member of the 4x100m during the 2006 Pan Pacific Championships in Victoria, British Columbia. Maritza was also the first African-American female swimmer to set an American and world swimming record (2002, NCAA championships, 50 and 100 Free); First African-American Female to make the US Olympic Swim team (2004); First black female swimmer to win a NCAA Division I Championship (2002, Georgia, 50 Free); First African-American female to win an Olympic medal (2004 Olympic Games, 400 Free Relay).
- Andrew Young (YES, THAT ANDREW YOUNG) was the first black swimmer to receive The International Swimming Hall of Fame’s medallion of honor (1952-1956, Howard University).
- Nate Clark was the first black swimmer to score in an NCAA Championship final (1962, Ohio state, 200 Fly).
- Fred Evans was the first black swimmer to win a national collegiate championship (Chicago State, 1975, 100 Breast).
- Enith Brigitha of the Netherlands was the first swimmer of African descent to win an Olympic medal (1976, Montreal, 100 Free).
- Chris Silva was the first African-American swimmer to make the U.S. National team (Team Captain, UCLA, 1982).
- Sybil Smith was the first black female swimmer to score in an NCAA final (1988, Boston University, 100 Back).
- Anthony Nesty was the first swimmer of African descent to win an Olympic gold medal (1988, Seoul, 100 Fly); First male swimmer of African descent to win an NCAA Div. I Championship (1990-1992, 100 Fly).
- Sabir Muhammad was the first black swimmer to set an American record (1997, Stanford University, 100 Fly).
- Alison Terry was the first black female swimmer to make a U.S. national team (1999, Pan American Games).
- Anthony Ervin was the first black swimmer to make a U.S. Olympic swimming team (2000 Sydney Olympic Games). Anthony won a gold medal in the men’s 50-meter freestyle 16 years after winning his first gold medal in the same event in Sydney.
- Alia Atkinson was the first black woman to win a world title in swimming (2015, 100 m breaststroke, world short course swimming championship, Doha).
- Simone Manuel (Stanford) was the first of three African-Americans to place in the top three spots at the 100-yard freestyle in any Women’s Division I NCAA Swimming Championship: Lia Neal (Stanford) was second, and Natalie Hinds (Florida) was third (2015). Simon won gold in Rio in the women’s 100-meter freestyle making her the first African-American woman to win an individual Gold Medal in Olympic Swimming.
Now, it is important for us to get over the damaging history we’ve experienced with regard to swimming because according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning rates among blacks aged 5–19 years is 5.5 times higher than those among whites in the same age group. Not adopting swimming as a “Black” activity is quite literally killing us. But rather than focus on the negative, let me share the positive aspects of swimming.
I swam just once a week and managed to drop 30 pounds in a month! Why? In combination with adopting a healthy diet, swimming is a really, really great way to get and stay fit. It’s excellent for developing a healthy heart and lungs. It tones and builds muscles. It’s a whole-body workout without putting too much stress on joints. It promotes improved flexibility, coordination, balance and posture. And if you have any qualms about how your body looks in a swimsuit, just know that once you get in the water, nobody can see you…because you’re in the water! And again, I cannot speak enough about the experience of doing it; IT FEELS SO GOOD.
I hope you adopt it. And if you’re in Metro Atlanta and want a swimming buddy, hit me up; I am sooooooo down.
Also, there are many resources available to learn where you can find affordable swim lessons for your entire family. Each year, the USA Swimming Foundation conducts a Make A Splash tour in which they visit several cities throughout the nation to raise awareness on swimming and learning to swim for children. There is also a similar program for adults coordinated by the USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation. And for those in search of a pool facility, you can visit Swimmersguide.com.
4 thoughts on “Black History Month: Do we or do we not swim?”
Super intriguing article! being from a cold climate, I think of swimming as just a plain FUN thing: of good times in the summer going to a lake, being lazy napping in the shade, building sandcastles, and having cookouts. Being raised on the rich side of poor, or very lower-middle class, my parents dug things that were great for the family and free to cheap. Check and check for swimming. Thanks Nikki!
Thanks for reading! And yes, swimming is plain fun indeed. I’d like my kids to think of it the way you do. 🙂
Classes and those floaty vests help a lot to get over fear of water IMO.
Both certainly do.