Movie to document swim coach's efforts

Updated: February 9, 2007, 4:58 PM ET
By Joseph Santoliquito | Special to ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA -- Jim Ellis could harbor the anger and bitterness and be resentful. But he doesn't. The words and snide looks are memories. In 1972, it was Ellis' goal to start an all-black swim club. So he created the Philadelphia Department of Recreation Swim Club (PDR), which is the basis of a movie coming out in March starring Terrence Howard called "Pride."

The movie documents the struggles and prejudice Ellis and his swim team endured in the early-1970s. How one time he heard underneath the stands at one meet, "Don't let those black kids beat you," to being the victim of some "funny" scoring at other meets and denied access to hotels during road trips.

The beauty and strength about Ellis, 59, is that he pushes it all aside. He never thought of fighting ignorance with more ignorance.

Brielle White, Tracy Freeland and Jim Ellis
Eric Kelley, UVa Athletics Coach Jim Ellis, in the white shirt, started the Philadelphia Department of Recreation Swim Club, which is the basis of the movie "Pride," to be released in March. He's pictured with Brielle White and coach Tracy Freeland.
"Racism is racism, and when you react to it in a negative way by lashing out, you're just as bad as being a racist yourself," Ellis said. "Me and my team never dwelled on what we went through. We were bigger than that. The kids moved on and developed a sense of pride in what they did and what they accomplished. Why give someone ignorant the satisfaction of being angry. We were always above that."

So Ellis developed the mantra "Beat them in the pool."

He started the PDR program at the Sayre Recreation Center in West Philadelphia, which they called the "country club of West Philly." Ellis left there in 1980 for what was then a new facility in North Philadelphia in 1980, called the Marcus Foster Pool, where the team still swims today.

Ellis is a legend in the swimming community, established when PDR started swimming national-qualifying times in 1984.

"Pride" covers the beginning of PDR dealing with the stereotype "black kids don't swim." The program has since produced seven-time All-American Brielle White, national qualifiers Jason Webb, Michael Norment, Atiba Wade, and Trevor and Tracy Freeland. Tracy Freeland has come back to the program as a coach, and also has two daughters who currently swim for PDR.

"No newspapers or local media covered us, it's swimming, despite years and years of national success," Ellis said. "I don't know if race was involved. But we had kids who achieved above and beyond what anyone thought. We just hit a home run with this program and the kids who came through here."

PDR works out six days a week in a pool and facility that needs serious care. They don't turn away anyone, usually getting between 25 to 30 kids on the club. Ellis would like to one day see Philadelphia build a facility that can accommodate 800 inner-city kids and teach them to swim. He says more African-Americans don't swim because of a lack of facilities and coaching.

"I think our kids could do well, if they're introduced to the sport at a young age," Ellis said. "Swimming has been a passion of mine my whole life. But we're still fighting for opportunity in the sport. PDR has allowed me to do what I wanted to get done, have an all-black swimming team, which is now racially diverse. Swimming should be available to all kids. I'm still here, 35 years later with my little hole in the wall, watching my kids swim."

Joseph Santoliquito is the Managing Editor of RING Magazine and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com. He can be contacted at JSantoliquito@yahoo.com.