USA Swimming looks to boost the number of African American swimmers and three Olympic stars lead the way.
With African Americans not knowing how to swim still an issue in the black community three Olympic medalists look to inspire and teach the younger generation. These three being Maritz Correia McClendon, Cullen Jones and Simone Manuel. These three also discussed the lack of coverage of their sport, challenges they face as black athletes in swimming and the future of swimming on a panel alongside Boston Globe’s Gary Washburn hosted by ESPN’s Michael Eaves at the National Association of Black Journalists 2017 Convention in New Orleans.
McClendon, in 2004, became the first African American to make the U.S. Olympic Team and was the first African American athlete to win a medal in swimming. Jones is a four-time Olympic medalist who became the first African American swimmer to hold a world record, which he done during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing where he brought home a gold medal. Manuel, also a four time Olympic medalist, is best known as the first black woman to win gold in an individual event which she done during the 2016 Olympics Games in Rio.
Each of these three swimmers have gotten more media attention as they are black athletes who became “the first black” in their respective accomplishments.
“Its an honor for us to be Olympic athletes…but it’s also the icing on the cake of us being black athletes and being role models in our communities,” McClendon said.
While this rings true for Jones as well, being the first black swimmer to do things is at times bothersome for him.
“It shines light on a problem that our community has,” Jones said.
Pushing to teach more African Americans to swim
Attempting to push initiatives to get more African Americans to swim is something they are doing as 64 percent of children that demographic don’t know how, McClendon cited.
“When you hear statistics like that…we are three swimmers who have Olympic medals, that’s a platform we can stand on and shout even louder,” McClendon said. “We want to inspire the next generation so we see a ton more black athletes on the pool deck.
“We have a lot of young athletes looking for a sport to do. Why not try a life changing sport called swimming.”
Through Jones’ “Make A Splash” initiative he’s had parents refuse to allow their children in the water because of their fear. This was also Eaves experience as he learned swimming because of his mother pushed him but swimming in the deep end and treading water still scared Eaves as it was a fear he got from his mother.
“That’s why so many black people don’t swim because somebody in our family is scared of water so they told us to be scared,” Eaves said.
Along with parents burdening their children with their fears there are three common reasons why African Americans stay away from water which include over lagging, parental backing and physical appearance, Jones said. However, its critical to overcome those fears to learn how to swim because its a “life saving skill.” After all, before Jones was an Olympic medalist he was a five-year-old boy who nearly drowned to death. While his father knew how to swim his mother did not but he learned at an early age just to have the skill and he later took it much further.
“You don’t have to become us in order to learn how to swim. The most important thing is to learn how to swim,” Jones said. “It’s a lot like riding a bike, once you learn it you know it for life.”
While they are continuing to break down fears in the black community to get more children to swim they are making progress. The number of black’s not knowing how to swim dropped six percent which encourages Manuel.
“It all starts with learning. You learn how to swim, you grow a love for the sport. You grow a love for the sport and you might make it to the same level as us,” Manuel said. “It’s getting there slowly but surely…there’s progress upwards.”
Future of Swimming
In 2000, and in 2004, there was only a “handful” of black swimmers competing to make the Olympic team, McClendon said, but in 2016 it was different.
“I went to the tryouts in 2016 and I was like ‘oh, wait a minute. I need more hands,’” McClendon said.
Just like how Tiger Woods inspired a wave of African Americans to pick up the sport of golf, Eaves said Reece Whitley could be that guy for swimming. Whitley was named the 2015 Sports Illustrated SportsKid of the Year after earning a silver medal FINA World Junior Championships; so with three successful black Olympic medalists who have paved the way for him those swimmers on that panel are excited to see what the 17-year-old will do.
“He has a huge smile. [All the media attention] it doesn’t faze him at all. He’s Reece Whitley,” McClendon said. “He takes it in stride and I think it’s because he’s seen the stuff that we’ve done before.”
The young star certainly made quite a first impression on Jones.
“The first time I met him I shook his hand and he gave me a hug. I was like ‘I love this kid,’” Jones said of Whitley.
Whether Whitley’s superstar talent will boom diversity in swimming is contingent on the media’s coverage. With swimming not being a priority sport to large media outlets on non-Olympic years, its crucial USA Swimming go the extra mile to push his brand.
“USA Swimming has to promote him and we have to take interests of it,” Washburn said.
As far as the young phenomenon taking off or, any young athlete for that matter, Manuel spoke after the panel for a brief one-on-one interview sharing what it takes to be a successful young athlete.
“For young rising stars and added pressure on them, I definitely say really do your best to ignore some of the outside distractions, that might be some social media…you got to stay focused and stay grounded and really work hard to achieve your goals and dreams,” Manuel said. “Do your sport because you are passionate and you love it.”
Focusing on how she’s done it she credits her support system.
“I always say that swimming is a journey and I didn’t want to be done in 2016 and that’s why I continue to swim,” Manuel said. “My swimming is not perfect and I still love it and that’s what keeps me motivated. When I don’t have the same love for the sport that’s when I’m going to be done.”
By Gino Terrell