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Where Are the Black Swimmers?

By Emily Millen Posted: 10/18/2007
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Sabir Muhammad should’ve been a basketball player. At least that’s what people used to tell the hulking 6-foot-7 USA Swimming National Team member.

“If you were black in the inner city, you played basketball or football,” Muhammad says. “I used to get on elevators and people would ask me who I played for.”

A native of inner-city Atlanta, Muhammad passed on the opportunity to hang out on the basketball courts or football fields after school. After accompanying his mother to a local pool where she worked in 1980, Muhammad met the resident swimming team, which, at the time, was just a single family. Less than 10 years old at the time, Muhammad joined the one-family team. He soon started swimming with Tommy Jackson, future coach of the City of Atlanta Dolphins (CAD), now the second largest black swim team in the country.

“There were three boys my age, so I completed the relay,” says Muhammad, who graduated with a MBA in finance from the Goizueta Business School in May. “We didn’t know that we were doing something that most kids like us weren’t.”

Fast-forward 20 years. With a bevy of American and world records, Muhammad is the most decorated black swimmer ever and the CAD’s most accomplished graduate.

“He wasn’t always the best, but he was always the hardest working,” Jackson says. “And he always wanted to be involved in his training. When the underwater dolphin kick was just coming out, he would call me and go ‘Hey Coach, watch this. What if I did it like this?’ He always wanted to know what was next.”

Muhammad was the first black swimmer to compete for Stanford University in 1994. By then he was no longer naive to the fact that he was one of the few black athletes in a mainly white sport. When he finished in the top 16 at the 1996 Olympic Trials, the United States had still not sent a black swimmer to the Olympics, a full 100 years after the birth of the modern Games.

Although Muhammad has made waves as a black person in the swimming community, he was largely on his own with few notable exceptions. Less than 2 percent of the 300,000 athletes registered with USA Swimming are black.

Slowly but surely, racial barriers in the other “country club” sports have fallen. Arthur Ashe laid the foundation for black athletes in tennis, cemented by the Williams sisters nearly 30 years later. Tiger Woods shattered the racial barrier on the golf course, claiming his 13th major in August.

But despite the success of swimmers like Muhammad, 2004 silver medalist Maritza
Correia and 2000 gold medalist Anthony Irvin, no African American athlete has become a national face for minorities in swimming. And until that happens, the swimming pool remains the final frontier for minority athletes.

The lack of minority participation in competitive swimming is not the only problem, or even the most serious one. Lack of exposure to swimming leads to drowning rates that are three times higher for minority children than for whites. It’s a trend Muhammad can’t ignore.

“Swimming gets this reputation as kind of being the country club sport,” Muhammad says. “It’s a crucial life skill, though. No one dies from not being
able to play basketball.”

Six years ago Muhammad created Swim for Life!, a program dedicated to teaching inner-city kids how to swim. Now USA Swimming, the governing body of all club swim teams, is using his program as the basis for Make a Splash Atlanta.

On June 22, USA Swimming hosted a kick-off party for the initiative. Atlanta Falcons players and cheerleaders were on hand to sign autographs and take photos. It was pageantry swimming rarely sees.

But should it take a football team and cheerleaders to get kids in the inner city interested in swimming? Inner-city swim programs focus on increasing the number of minority swimmers, but they don’t address the root of the problem.

What is it about the culture of swimming that has failed minorities?

Misperceptions about blacks and swimming have existed for years. In 1969, a study published by Ohio University titled “The Negro and Learning How to Swim” concluded that black people have a biological makeup which made them less buoyant than white people. The study has since been nullified, but a racial divide persists.

CAD alumnus Ian Perry-Okpara was fortunate to get involved with swimming at a young age. He joined CAD in the 1980s and moved up the ranks in club swimming, competing against other club teams in Georgia.

“Swimming in Georgia, you always felt a little pressure to kind of prove yourself,” Perry-Okpara says. “But the great thing about swimming is times
are times. You could be red, blue, green, purple, but when it comes down to it, it’s just what you do in the water.”

Perry-Okpara earned a scholarship to Georgia Southern University, but after the school terminated its men’s swimming program due to Title IX restrictions, the backstroke specialist transferred to historically black Howard University.

Even after graduation, Perry-Okpara couldn’t leave the sport to which he’d devoted the past 20 years of his life. He returned to the familiar world of shrill whistles and chlorine air as a volunteer with CAD at the Washington Park Natatorium, one of the team’s practice sites.

The natatorium, located blocks away from Morehouse University, is not your typical swimming facility. Unlike many of the natatoriums where the walls are decorated with images of gold medalists Mark Spitz or Michael Phelps, the photos on the wall at Washington Park are of civil rights leaders.

In an area of Atlanta more known for chain-link barriers than white-picket fences, Perry-Okpara dedicates his free time to volunteering for a program that he feels is vital to attracting minorities to swimming.

“The more programs you have like this, the more you’re going to see minorities in swimming,” Perry-Okpara says. “The coaches all have strong connections to the team and to the swimmers. There are coaches that will go pick up the kids if their parents are at work to get them to practice. You need people like that.”

But try as they may, coaches can’t always replace an involved parent. Parents are the ones who introduce their children to swimming and stress their safety in the pool, says Perry-Okpara. He should know. Although his mother didn’t learn to swim until she was an adult, she introduced swimming to her son. Perry-Okpara realizes he was fortunate, and wants other children to have the same opportunity.

“Michael Jordan could’ve been a swimmer if he’d been introduced to it at a young age,” Perry-Okpara says, smiling. “He ended up playing basketball, which seemed to work out all right, but you never know what could’ve happened.”

Perry-Okpara believes the difference between Michael Jordan and Michael Phelps wasn’t talent, but exposure to swimming at a young age. If this is the case, then, Muhammad has a plan.

Muhammad traded his water world for a job in the financial world after the 2004 Olympic Trials, but he didn’t sever his ties to swimming. He returned to Atlanta
and to the swimming community that paid his way through college and punched his passport to competitions all over the world. But his focus was no longer on breaking records.

In 2001, Muhammad teamed up with the Boys and Girls Club to launch Swim for Life!, a program that provided swimming opportunities for innercity youth. Through Swim For Life!, Muhammad wanted to teach kids how to be safe in the water and also spark their interest in swimming.

“The likelihood of finding a 15-year-old who’s never swam before, and turning him into a collegiate athlete is pretty slim,” Muhammad says. “But if we can teach that kid how to survive in the water, then we’ve made a difference.”

With the question of exposure comes the question of economics. Fees for private swimming clubs average between $50 and $100 per month. With nearly one-third of black children in the United States living below the poverty line — more than double that of white children — the cost of joining a private pool is not always a possibility.

Programs like Make a Splash and Swim for Life! are free to members of the Boys and Girls Club. Fees for City of Atlanta Dolphins, which is funded by the city of Atlanta, are $250 a year.

But Swim for Life! struggled in its early years. Staffing — and retaining — qualified swimming instructors for the program was difficult, and coordinating lessons between pools has been a logistical nightmare.

Then there were the pools themselves. When Muhammad approached the Atlanta Boys and Girls Club in 2001, many of the pools were dilapidated and should have been shut down. Renovating and maintaining them was expensive. Swim for Life! needed funding and a standardized way to measure how the lessons were taught.

Cue USA Swimming. The organization had already started laying the foundation for a national campaign to increase the minority presence in swimming.

“We realized we needed to get serious about our white sport,” aquatics programs
specialist Sue Nelson says.

In 2004, USA Swimming launched Make a Splash, an awareness campaign to increase exposure to swimming in ethnic communities. Earlier this year it began developing a teaching component to its program.

“We identified Atlanta for the pilot site because of the population and diversity in the inner-city,” Nelson says. “And the infrastructure was already
set. We just came in for several months this summer oversee the programs were being run in accordance to Make a Splash guidelines and that the pools were safe to be teaching in.”

Make a Splash Atlanta secured a $500,000 grant from the Atlanta Falcons Youth Organization and an additional $1 million from USA Swimming to operate the swim programs. Nelson spent part of the summer in Atlanta streamlining the Swim for Life! programs with the guidelines set by USA Swimming. Her primary goal was to make the program sustainable, not build a new program from the ground up.

“We’re not trying to recreate the wheel,” Nelson says. “The idea is to create awareness. There are already learn-to-swim programs that are working effectively. We just want to provide some of the structure to allow them to operate.”

Having minority role models for kids to idolize is another important factor in the race equation. That’s something Maritza Correia, the first black female swimmer at the Olympics and 2003 University of Georgia alumna, embraces wholeheartedly.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Correia never gave a second thought to the fact that she was a minority swimmer. But leading up the Olympic Trials in 2000 and 2004, Correia was bombarded with media hype surrounding her minority status.

“There was a lot of focus [on the minority angle] leading into the 2000 Olympics because it was, ‘Who was going to be the first?’” Correia says. “And you had guys like Sabir [Muhammad], Michael Norment, Byron Davis and my name got brought up, which was the first time I’d ever really thought about it. Then in 2004, it was, ‘Who was going to be the first female?’”

But instead of resenting the added pressure that other finalists didn’t have to deal with, Correia embraced the chance to be a voice for black swimmers.

In 2005, Correia teamed with world record-holder Janet Evans to become the spokeswomen for Make a Splash. She now co-hosts the Black Heritage Swim Meet with up-and-coming black swimmer and North Carolina State University varsity swimming alum Cullen Jones in Greensborough, N.C., every year. This past May, the meet drew nearly 700 swimmers, 95 percent of whom were black.

“USA Swimming has been taking the right steps, but it’s going to take a long time,” Correia says. “And since there are starting to be those role models like Sabir, like myself and with Cullen Jones coming up with all the success that he’s having, I think that part is in place.”

After a five-week session this summer, Make a Splash just kicked off the eight-week fall session at the beginning of October. It’s too soon to tell what the program’s impact on closing the race gap in swimming will be. If it does nothing more than equip kids with the water safety skills to save their own lives, Nelson, Muhammad and others associated with Make a Splash say the program will have done it’s job.

But without the grassroots effort to bring more minorities into the swimming world, Muhammad, Correia, Perry-Okpara and all the other minority success stories in swimming stand to be just isolated examples of success. For programs like Make a Splash, introducing kids to the pool is just the first step to diversifying the waters.

Maybe in the future, when a 6-foot-7 black man steps into a crowded elevator, basketball isn’t the first thing that will come to people’s minds.

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