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Swimming While Black: Diversity in Aquatics

Updated: Jul 29, 2021

By Marla Hunter, Founder & CEO of Live. Love. Swim!, LLC @LiveLoveSwimLLC

It all began the summer of 1985 at the Mason YMCA. I was 4 years old preparing for my first group swim lessons. According to my mum, before the lessons officially began I jumped into the 10-foot deep end and a lifeguard had to jump in after me. When I got home my mum remembers that my answer to my question of how the lesson went was, “I drowned today, Mummie!”

I’m sure that if this had happened to any other child, they would have quit swim lessons, but not me. I continued to take lessons until all that was left for me to do was to train to become a lifeguard myself. My mum was determined that both of her children knew how to swim. This is because she could not.

The summer of 1995, I got my first job at the same Mason YMCA where I had “drowned” when I was 4 years old. It was amazing, but I realized something about my new job. Out of the 20 lifeguards and eight swim coaches, there were only three of us who were Black. It was like this for many years, until it got to the point where for almost seven years, I was the only Black lifeguard and swim coach. Not to mention, I was the only Black person on the synchronized swim team as well.

During my ten-year tenure at the Mason YMCA, I taught several different demographics and ages. As a matter of fact, my oldest students were a husband and wife who were 95 and 97. It was their dream to learn how to swim once their children got older. They expressed to me that they grew up in an America where swimming pools, dance halls, and roller-skating rinks were off-limits to Black people.

This was not surprising to me, because I knew the history of segregation and how only a fraction of pools were designated for Black people before the civil rights era. It is at this moment that I knew my purpose: teaching POC (People of Color), especially Black people, how to swim. This is because there were too many reports showing how Black people in the United States drown at five times the rate of white people.

Diversity in Aquatics

The swimming and diving portion in the Olympics have always been my favorite sport. I get equally excited when I see someone who looks like me swimming, diving, or even participating in synchronized swimming.

The first Black person to win an Olympic medal in swimming was Enith Brigitha in the 1976 Montreal Olympics. In 1988, Anthony Nesty from Suriname became the first Black man to win an Olympic gold in swimming. In 2004, Maritza McClendon won a silver medal and was the first Black American (and first Puerto Rican) woman to make a US Olympic swim team and win a medal. Every year, Black swimmers at the Olympics Games increase. I was so excited when Simone Manuel was the first Black woman to win a gold for the U.S. in swimming at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

None of this has to end, but it won’t continue until organizations such as USA Swimming, The International Swimming Federation, United States Swim School Association, and other such organizations take the time to look at their DEI (Diversity Equity and Inclusion) Committees or lack thereof.

The Answer

Pools are supposed to be a place of learning and relaxation, but over the years it stopped being that way. Let’s take a moment to think about it. There are several cases when Black people have been harassed at pools: a little Black boy was harassed by a white woman in South Carolina; a Black woman was asked to provide identification by a white man in North Carolina; and a Black man wearing socks in the water had the police called on him by a white manager of an apartment complex in Tennessee.

How can we have a continued growth in Black and Brown swimmers? The answer is simple: access to pools as a child. Children need to see people who look like them swimming. Someone that they can relate to, someone to look up to.

As swimming professionals, it is important that we increase the diversity in the sport of swimming. It is important that swim team and swim organizations increase awareness about all aspects of diversity in swimming and think about and do the following to increase their diversity:

  1. Hire BIPOC (Black Indigenous People of Color) and POC (People of Color) coaches and instructors.

  2. Provide DEI training for staff and volunteers.

  3. Have an ambassador. This is someone who you can partner with to help you reach out to the members of the BIPOC and POC communities.

  4. Remember that Diversity isn’t just about race. It’s gender, culture, sexual preference, socioeconomic status, all differences.

Marla Hunter is the founder and president of Live.Love.Swim!, LLC, a global provider of private swim lessons and semi-private swimming lessons for infants, children, and adults. Marla has conducted swim lessons and coached swim teams in the following places: US, UK, Nigeria, and UAE. She currently conducts lessons in San Jose, CA.

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