Commentary

Tough swim through stereotypes for African-Americans

Originally Published: May 30, 2008
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Blair Cross was the only black female swimmer in the ACC last year. Brielle White graduated from Virginia in 2006; for four years, she, too, was the only black female swimmer in the ACC. Cross and White share a distinction the organizers of the National Black Heritage Championship Swim Meet want to erase.

This Memorial Day weekend, I attended the event, which was sponsored by the Central Florida YMCA in Orlando. My daughter, Emily, was a high school swimmer. Over the years, we watched a number of big meets at the YMCA Aquatics Center, where this meet was held. Out of the more than 2,000 swimmers we must have seen there, I can recall seeing only three African-American competitors.

[+] EnlargeBlair Cross
Courtesy Maryland UniversityThe University of Maryland's Blair Cross says people are surprised to learn she's a swimmer.
At the National Black Heritage Championship, there were 500 African-American swimmers.

But the YMCA had more than competition as motivation to bring the event to Orlando. In Florida, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death of children younger than 4, and the state has the second largest number of drowning deaths in the nation. For children ages 5 to 14, drowning rates for African-Americans are more than two and a half times higher than those for white children of similar age, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Nine drown each day, and that number is increasing.

"We want to save families from childhood water-related tragedies by surrounding kids with swimming opportunities and role models," said Jim Ferber, CEO of the Central Florida YMCA.

In the 2005-06 academic year, the last year the NCAA published the data, 107 African-American male and female swimmers competed in Division I, compared with 7,121 whites, 207 Asians and 213 Latinos. African-Americans represented .012 percent, then, of the 8,515 Division I swimmers (which also includes Native Americans, international students and people categorized as 'other.'). In other words, Asians and Latinos were twice as likely as African-Americans to be on a Division I swim team, and whites were nearly 70 times as likely. The percentages were similar in Divisions II and III.

USA Swimming, the sport's sanctioning body, has 280,000 members. Less than 1 percent are African-American and Latino.

Cross says people regularly are surprised when she is identified as a swimmer. A common comment, she said: I thought you would sink in water. At the University of Maryland, where she goes to school, she often is referred to by other students and competitors as "the black swimmer." When she tells people she goes to Maryland but doesn't identify the College Park campus, she said people often assume she goes to the less academically rigorous University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, where the student body is heavily minority.

[+] EnlargeBrielle White
Eric Kelley, UVA AthleticsBrielle White was a seven-time all-American at Virginia.
"I know I am a role model for other young African-American girls," she said. "They see me swim, and it gives them the confidence to swim competitively. I tell them to jump in, do your best and have fun."

Brielle White was a seven-time All-American at Virginia and now hopes to land a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. The first African-American college champion was Chicago State's Fred Evans, who won the 100-yard breaststroke at the 1975 NAIA swimming championships. It took another 15 years for Anthony Nesty to become the first male swimmer of African descent (he is Afro-Caribbean) to win an NCAA championship. At the University of Florida, he won the 100-meter butterfly three times (in 1990, '91 and '92) and also won the 200 in 1992. Nesty was born in Trinidad and Tobago, and his family moved to Suriname when he was very young. Swimming for Suriname in 1988, he became the first swimmer of African descent to win an Olympic gold at the Seoul Olympics.

Anthony Irvin won gold in the 50-meter freestyle at the Sydney Games in 2000.

Maritza Correia won both the 50- and 100-yard freestyle in the 2002 NCAA championships, becoming the first African-American woman to win an NCAA championship. In both events, she set American records, bettering the marks of two Olympic gold medalists (Amy Van Dyken and Jenny Thompson) in the process. Correia won a silver medal in Athens in the 400 freestyle relay. She was the first African-American woman to make the U.S. Olympic swim team and the first to win a medal. (Though her parents are from Guyana, Correia was born and raised in Puerto Rico, and so is also considered to be the first Hispanic-American to set a U.S. swimming record.)

Today, Sabir Muhammad is arguably the best-known African-American swimmer. A 6-foot-7 man from Atlanta, some people who spot him think he is a basketball player. It was not easy, but Muhammad's work ethic got him to the elite world in swimming, where he broke 10 American records.

Swimming, like golf and tennis, has been considered a "country club" sport. Yet despite the success of swimmers such as Muhammad, Correia and Irvin, swimming to date has not prduced a Tiger Woods or a Venus and Serena Williams. Until that happens, it's likely the swimming pool will remain a frontier for African-American athletes.

There have been widely held assumptions by whites that African-Americans cannot swim. Former Los Angeles Dodger vice president Al Campanis even used this stereotype in his infamous moment on "Nightline" in 1987, when he talked about blacks not having the necessities to be big league managers. Unfortunately, when one community accepts stereotypes about another, members of the community that's stereotyped often come to believe it as well. In this case, that might have kept some blacks from seeking out opportunities to swim competitively. Clearly, more pools are available in suburbs and in affluent communities where country club membership is possible. That is one reason why the YMCA is now involved with a push to teach swimming in its urban facilities.

[+] EnlargeBlair Cross
Courtesy Maryland UniversityMaryland's Cross understands that she is a role model.
If we are going to produce more elite African-American swimmers, then high school and college coaches will have to look for the African-American swimming clubs where excellent training is taking place to bring them to mainstream attention and create the potential for more media coverage and scholarships.

I went to the Black Heritage Meet with my friend Anita DeFrantz. She knows the meaning of being the "first African-American woman" in a number of different arenas. She was the first to make the U.S. Olympic rowing team and the first to win a rowing medal in 1976. Now considered by many as the most powerful woman in sports through her leadership positions on the International Olympic Committee, DeFrantz was excited to see all these youthful African-American barrier breakers.

"I wanted to swim competitively when I was their age, but an African-American girl had no outlet to swim," she said. "My being a competitive athlete prepared me for everything that followed in life. I think it is great that these kids are getting this opportunity."

Said Wayne Humphrey, vice president of government relations for Central Florida YMCA: "When you look into their eyes, you can see they believe they have a future. Their aspirations and their hope is grounded in their experience as swimmers, as people and as future leaders."

This isn't the only program to get African-American kids in the pool. When teenager Joshua Butts drowned in a lake two years ago, his mother, Wanda Butts, started The Josh Project to teach inner-city children in Toledo, Ohio, how to swim. The program serves 60 kids at a time, is growing in popularity and has a long waiting list.

In 2001, Muhammad joined with the Atlanta Boys & Girls Club to launch Swim for Life. The programs provide swimming opportunities for inner-city youth to teach kids how to be safe in the water and also spark their interest in swimming. Muhammad called swimming a "crucial life skill."

"No one dies from not being able to play basketball," he said.

[+] EnlargeBrielle White
Eric Kelley, UVA AthleticsWhite has aspirations of making the U.S. Olympic team this summer.
Five years ago, USA Swimming was in the process of creating a national campaign to increase the minority presence in swimming, and it launched its Make a Splash program in 2004 to increase exposure to swimming in minority communities. At the time, Swim for Life lacked funding. USA Swimming invested $1 million and the Atlanta Falcons Youth Foundation gave $500,000, and they have made Swim for Life the model.

The film "Pride," released in 2007, chronicled the life story of Jim Ellis, the Philadelphia swim coach who has trained many of the nation's best African-American swimmers. Having his story in a popular medium might help increase interest.

Breaking barriers, of course, conjures up images of freedom. Historically, one of the biggest is the underground railroad and the role it played in helping slaves escape during the 19th century. Trice Davids was a runaway slave from Kentucky. In 1831, with his slave master in pursuit, Davids dived into the Ohio River. His owner could not find a boat to go after him. Assuming Davids had drowned, his owner reportedly said he must have traveled where he was going on an underground railroad. Davids made it to Ripley, Ohio, and became a free man. Thus, according to some historical accounts of the underground railroad, one of the most famous institutions in the history of African-Americans was initiated by an African-American swimmer.

Though many obstacles are left to be overcome, these programs and events appear to be the foundation blocks. I look forward to attending next year's National Black Heritage Championship Swim Meet and following the careers of Cross and others ready to take the national stage in a sport that is changing to look more like America.

Richard E. Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management graduate program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card in sports, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He is a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sports.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com