Why Are There So Few Black Competitive Swimmers?

    My twin niece and nephew got their first swimming lesson when they were 18 months old. my sister jean was determined that they would not inherit her fear of water. a fear born from her own first swimming lesson at Girl Scout camp, a fall without warning into a cold, murky lake.

    That not-so-repressed memory came back as she settled into the parents’ lounge area to watch her little ones get into the water. my sister recalls that she “had no breath to scream” as she watched her children fly through the air before falling into the water with a loud splash. they immediately felt comfortable kicking, as the instructor knew they would.

    Reading: Black swimmers in the olympics

    my niece and nephew are good swimmers today. mission accomplished for my non-swimmer sister, who also knew that most black kids can’t swim: 64%, according to a joint study by the united states swim foundation and the university of memphis with the ymca.

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    That’s one of the reasons why there aren’t many black competitive swimmers, let alone Olympic-caliber swimmers. there is not enough potential talent in the pipeline.

    It doesn’t help that the international swimming federation, or finna, banned a swim cap made by the British company soul cap, designed especially to cover the afro, pigtails and pigtails of black swimmers. Until now, black swimmers have been forced to try to fit their hair into the much smaller cap designed for white hair, which grows straight and flat on the head. the company was inspired by alice dearing, the first black woman to compete on the british olympic swim team, who has a bushy afro. larger cap does not improve performance; in fact, experts point out that it actually creates drag or resistance in the water. no matter. A little over a week ago, Fina banned the use of the cap because, according to the organization’s culturally deaf reason: the large shower cap “did not fit the normal shape of the head.” The casually racist comment was met with an intense worldwide reaction, followed by an announcement that Fina was reconsidering her ban.

    I didn’t have much interest in Olympic swimming until Michael Phelps became the king of gold medals. that’s probably why he was watching the rio 2016 women’s swimming competition in brazil when he won simone manuel from the united states. he was frankly surprised when his dark face appeared after touching the wall of the pool in victory. Manuel won gold, beating her competitors in the 100-meter freestyle race. Manuel is not only the first African-American to win an individual gold medal in swimming, but he also set Olympic and American records.

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    Its success is all the more surprising given that more than half of African-Americans can’t swim and are also three times more likely to drown than whites, statistics surprisingly tied directly to the nation’s fraught history of segregated pools. . by custom and law, black residents were denied the use of municipal public swimming pools. pools were closed or closed permanently, or drained and refilled, if a black person got into the water. In 1964, the manager of a motel in Saint Augustine, Fla., threw acid into a swimming pool where five black protesters had staged a swim. A photo of one such screaming and shocked protester, 17-year-old Mimi Jones of Roxbury, is an iconic image of the civil rights movement. after desegregation, blacks who excelled in the sport had to find a way to gain access to the private, members-only clubs where swimming meets are normally held.

    I wonder how many talented black swimmers walked away from the sport because it was too difficult to swim against the current of so many obstacles.

    but i’m also sure that the mere presence of simone manuel in the olympic pool will be inspiring. this weekend when the 2021 summer games kick off, I’ll be watching, intentionally this time, hoping he can bring home the gold once again.

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