Can African Americans Swim Well Enough to Save Themselves?

Culturally speaking, most African American men and women do not swim well enough to save themselves, and for those who can swim, most do not participate in organized water sport activities. Why is this? Can the culture of non-swimmers be reversed? How?

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  yes, with opportunity.  I started working with several communities that did not have an aquatics program; last time they had aquatics in their community was in 92.  I started lesson three years ago and now have an age group swim team, Jr. Lifeguard club, and plans to start a diving team this summer.  I am hoping that in the up coming year we will also have a water polo team and syncro team.   We have scholarship several of our swimmers giving them the opportunity they would not have had.  One of our families we have on our team and in our jr. lifeguard is from the highest crime rate area in town, the son started out in my swim lessons then I scholarship him into our swim team.  I had noticed his sister 17 would come every night with their mom.  I talked to her about our jr. lifeguard but she stated she was terrified of the water.  I eventually did get her to try and in two months I was able to place her on the swim team and in our jr. lifeguard club;  I am looking forward to her taking the life guard test so I can employee her.  It was not that she was afraid; she never had the opportunity to be in water before.  I am finding that it is not skin color that is keeping these kids from aquatics it is opportunity

Thank you, Eve, you are certainly doing your part to bring swimming literacy to your community, and to break down those existing cultural barriers that have excluded Black folks from enjoying and participating in water sport activities.  You have created the opportunity necessary to bring about change in your community, and in the process, you yourself have become a change agent and ambassador for all of swimming.  I am seriously considering forming a professional organization that will tackle swimming literacy for all who need it.  Are you interested in such a project?  My email address is Errol@LakeRawlings.com.  Take care, and keep up the good work.

Errol:

Thank you so much for the email and the invite.  I have moved into that direction a few years ago, our level cards and training DVD's have photos of African American, Hispanic, Asian, and Caucasians.  We have a foundation that supports and help fund all aquatic programs along my own company giving free swim lessons.  We have developed a year round Jr. Lifeguard program (i.e. girl scouts, boy scout, sea cadets, etc.).  We have introduced new aquatic programs and sports into each community and will have several more in the next couple of years. (Too many at once is to over whelming start out slow).  My staff of multiple races are training and have educational requirements with daily & monthly training to keep up their certifications.   If you need some help in anyway I will be willing to share my experience of 25years of professional coaching and owning my own business.   

One of the things that was mentioned in your latest comments was I suspect the REAL reason is that girls discover boys earlier then boys do. If this was true we would have that same ratio across the board of races.  With my many years of experience of interacting with families of swimmer and swimmers themselves along with my own staff it is the hair not the boys!

Hi Eve,

You are a go-getter, for sure.  We need more people like you serving as role models for swimmers in the communities around the country.  Maybe we can bring a program like yours to national prominence. 

I see you like to talk about hair - well, so do I.  You ever hear discussions about "good hair" vs. "bad hair" or "blow hair" vs. "kinky hair"?  The myth is that "blow hair" is "good hair", and that "kinky hair" is "bad hair".  Of course, these terms are put-downs, when in fact all hair is good hair when clean and appropriately styled (don't ask me to define "appropriately styled", whatever that may be).  But I will say this about hair as a swim teacher and swim coach.  Most of my students at Hampton University were women, at least 2-1 and sometimes 3-1.  These women (mostly African-American) did not complain about their hair, they dealt wit it.  Many cut their hair short when they enrolled in my swim classes.  A very high percentage of these students took two swimming classes at HU, at the beginner and intermediate levels.  My lecture remarks at their first class session about hair was simple:  we covered safety (no metal objects in hair, i.e., bobby pins, etc.); appropriate swim cap (competitive swim cap preferred, not required); and shampoo all relaxers from hair before coming into the pool.  HAIR WAS NEVER AN ISSUE WHEN ENROLLED IN MY SWIM CLASSES, regardless of hair texture.  The same was true when I coached age-group swimming.  And participation was pretty much even between boys & girls in my experience coaching age-group swimmers. 

The following remarks are related to participation in age-group development and competition swimming programs.  I did notice that participation began to wane with girls in age-group swimming when they reached the age of 13-14 and high school age.  Their social agenda grew, and swimming became less important.  It is about that time in the life-cycle of girls that girls discover boys faster than boys discover girls (my opinion).  Was it hair?  Probably not.  Was it boys?  Well, in my daughter's experience and within her circle of friends, it was a definite "yes".  But you can also characterize their choice as expanding social interests beyond swimming, and certainly not hair.  Our daughter was the fastest backstroker for the Wellesley Swimming Association for almost two years, or at least until she stopped swimming competitively.  For informational purpose, the WSA had 80-90 swimmers when I coached the team; there were 5 African-American swimmers on the team, and two were my children.  Our son stuck with it and became a very productive competitive swimmer in high school after we moved to Virginia.  His interests were the competition and the glory, and he enjoyed the sport much more so than our daughter.  Our daughter had a social agenda that went beyond the training requirements of competition swimming, and the two agendas of training and social activity are many times in conflict with each other.  One must choose.  But she learned to swim well, and for that reason alone, she met my parental objective and goal.

African-American women who choose competition swimming will not complain about hair.  They will learn to deal with it.  The problem is probably less with the children than the parents (my assumption). 

Another point I want to make about swimming and hair is this:  When I arrived at Hampton University in July 1982 (HU is one of many HBCU's around the country; most are located in the South), there was a program called Kiddie Kollege and an afternoon swimming program for the children of the faculty and some neighborhood children.  My family had not arrived until late August, so we were not involved with this program.  The Kiddie Kollege program was sponsored by the Laboratory School, which was under the egis of the School of Education at HU.  I was able to convince the school director and the Dean of the School of Education about the benefits of extending the Kiddie Kollege program to include a recreation program in the afternoon.  We talked about developing a learn-to-swim program being the anchor of the program.  We renamed the program Kiddie Kollege/Kiddie Kamp.  The children swam twice a day in the afternoon, instructional swimming and recreational swimming.  I was the co-director of the program for six wonderful years.  I made my contribution and moved on to doing something else at HU.  Hair was a factor; however, parents learned that the value of learning to swim was more important than swimming illiteracy.  Hair should never be a reason to not learn a valued skill.

But let me stop here.  I am sure there are more stories out there.  And I want to hear them all.  Take care, and I expect to meet you one day.

Errol:

 

I am more then as you put it “go getter” I believe and live for reducing the accidental drowning rate.  It is already an importance around the world and will continue as long as there is even one accidental drowning.  Errol to your comment “I see you like to talk about hair - well, so do I” I was merely responding to your comment boys are the factor.  I seem we have different experiences, could it be the generation gap or the community and age we worked with.  Which ever it be does not matter we all learn from experience and when we take others experience digest it and use what we feel will help us makes us it makes us better.  AS for good hair, bad hair, natural, straighten etc it is a matter of personal preference it is not up to you or me to state.   AS for your remarks about when children started to lose interested I think it falls into different reason as the years go by and life changes, we will always tackle one issue and another will form, in all races or “tribes”.  In your opinion and raising a daughter you have come to the conclusion it is social.  Ashellee Sue Osborn believes it is due to lack of swim coaches and mentoring. (I do agree with her- especially on the mentoring we should adopt the Australian mentoring system)And I believe it is opportunity.  We all come from different back rounds, race, economics, education, and geographic areas the obstacles we face will sometimes be the same others and some will not but as advocators of preventing drowning we need to work together to achieve our goal not dismiss each others opinions and stick to the facts and number.  With raising children there come hard aches and victories.  I myself have raised three daughters (one still in high school(competitive swimmer), one in senior year of collage(runs marathons), and the other out of collage(swim coach) which have all swam competitively the middle one took on competitive cross country running in high school. My experience is different then yours with their circle of friends ---- .Errol, just for informational purposes my swim team is 95% African American, put 500 African Americans children threw a six week swim lessons last year on scholarships with the help of USA Make a Splash foundation, conducted 600 swim lessons with two local park districts for the summer 96% African American, and addition held over 4000 paying lessons for the year with a mixture of Caucasians, Hispanics, and Asian. I also have an adult masters program and aqua aerobics along with a Jr. Lifeguard Club.  I thank you for your opinions and have taken some good hints from you and your experience. Maybe one day our paths will cross, if you are ever in the Chicago land please feel free to stop by.

Michael, 

 

Your experience with the preschool teachers underscores one of the barriers to our children learning to swim. Adults who can't swim pass on the fear, and reject even free swim lessons in the name of protecting their children. Thank goodness you were there to counter that mentality. More black adults who can swim may be the only answer to solving the black drowning rate. 

Angela, you are on point . . . this is, without question, a major factor why Black folks are so far behind in swimming literacy.  This, too, is access denied.  Spreading fear of water to your child is brainwashing them into believing swimming is for the "other tribe", not ours;  we don't do that stuff.  Parents in these situations are denying their children an opportunity to grow into their own awareness of self.  It teaches lack and limitation. It denies them the opportunity to learn a most valued skill.  Angela, you have got me on a rant.  Question:  Can this cycle be reversed?  Possibly, but it will take an all-out effort to turn this worm.  If I had to choose a start point, I would go to the Bishop T. D. Jakes and beg him to address the situation for swimmming literacy amongst Black folks. Bishop Jakes, I would say, there is a problem in the Black community that must be fixed.  I would cite the example of the six children who drowned in Shreveport, LA last year,  I would make him aware of the Josh Project.  Black folks listen to their minister, and Bishop T. D. Jakes is a prominent person in the Black church.  Every congregant in every Black church must hear the message detailing the importance of swimming literacy.  When this happens, change will come.  I know, this is a first step, a baby step, but what change ever happened without that most important first step.  Last point on this subject, the largest conference of Black ministers takes place on the campus of Hampton University every year starting the first week in June.  So, there is a beginning point, let's see if we can make it happen.

Hi Michael,

Angela commented on your comment to this discussion, and I commented on her comment, so review the thread.  She was on point in observing that parents too often act out of ignorance in denying their child the opportunity to take swimming lessons. The assumption is the belief that this is the way to prevent their child from drowning.  These assumptions are not valid, and are often played out in real time.  Teaching fear becomes a result of that ill fated process.  Stay tuned.

Errol

I had a discussion with my doctor today while undergoing my semi-annual physical (I am healthy).  We talked about the importance of knowing how to swim.  She herself is not a swimmer (I am working on her, however, and I intend to prevail by getting her into a pool by year end), but confided that she brought her son to swim lessons many years ago so he would become a competent swimmer.  She did not want to pass her fear of water on to him, and today he is a lifeguard.  She believes, like all of us in Diversity in Aquatics, that everyone must have the opportunity to learn how to swim, and to do something about it, especially parents of young children.  I said to her wouldn't it be wonderful if pediatricians stressed the importance of knowing how to swim to their patients during their office visits, starting at a young age.  Most children and their parent(s) go to a pediatrician (hopefully) for medical exams.  What do you think about pediatricians becoming involved in this aspect of child health?  Do you think this can be a game changer?  Just thinking out loud.

There are so many alternatives for haircare for African-Americans that swim.  I don't necessarily think it's absolutely necessary for African-American girls to cut their hair short if they want to swim, although it is certainly an option.  I recommend to the parents of the African-American girls that come to my waterfront travel camp program that they have their daughters braid their hair for camp and then take it out when they get home.  Even my senior (African-American) lifeguard braids her hair for camp (that's her swimming with the dolphins at CampCaribe 2011 in the BVIs yesterday).  As a water aerobics instructor when she's back at home, she wears her hair chin length (with a soft perm).  I guess my point is that there are options.  Hair shouldn't be a determining factor for swimming. 

Thank you for your valued insight, Tracey - it is duly noted.  And I like the braids, a wonderful option.  Question:  Is your camp for girls located at a fixed location, or do you move around?  Just curious.
It's a travel camp...to waterfront locations...Virgin Islands...Hawaii...lakes, beachfronts, etc.

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