In the same vein as Make a Splash – which breaks down stereotypes and socio-economic barriers to give minorities the opportunity and skills to swim – Fort Lauderdale Aquatics (FLA) is working toward changing the face of swimming in the United States.
“We are trying to make the benefits of swimming on a swim team available to diverse communities,” said FLA Director and Head Coach Duffy Dillon. “We’re particularly proud that seven high school valedictorians have come out of our swim program.
“Swimming not only builds athletic skills, but it also helps with academic success because it teaches commitment, time management, courage and many more key life skills.”
FLA, the largest swim program in Florida, supports the Bass Park Swim Program, which is run by the City of Fort Lauderdale Parks and Recreation Department. Students from the Bass Park program receive scholarships from FLA to enable them to participate in swim meets at a nominal cost and participate in training at FLA’s main pool in Fort Lauderdale at the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
The results of FLA’s financial and coaching support are quite visible. Charles Williams, who swims at Bass Park and at FLA, finished third in the 100 butterfly at the Florida State Championships last year.
He became the first student from Dillard High School, a historically black school, to medal in swimming since the end of segregation. Williams won the 50 freestyle and 100 butterfly at the county championships this year and also won the 50 free at districts and regionals.
Several years ago, a girls team from Bass Park’s program was the first all-black relay team to qualify in the history of the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA). Since segregation, there has never been an all African American relay team of either gender to qualify to participate in the FHSAA Championships.
Despite swimming being non-traditional in the black community, with FLA’s help, the Bass Park program attracts roughly 40 African American swimmers each day to practice, and gives them a constructive outlet after school when they might otherwise find opportunity for trouble.
“Swimming is a great salvation tool from a practical standpoint,” said Bass Park Head Coach Gainus Wright. “It saves kids from a lot of the negative things in the streets they have to deal with. They don’t have idle time since they’re practicing five days a week.
“Most of all, like all sports, swimming combats the issues of race. When you’re on a team, you’re all working for one goal – no one cares what color you are.”
Children on the Bass Park team work out from 5 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday, at Bass. More accomplished swimmers are able to go to the International Swimming Hall of Fame complex from 4 to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. There is room in both the program at Bass Park and on the swim team at FLA’s pool for additional team members.
FLA officially opened in 2004, and is Florida’s No. 1 swimming program for youth and adults in Florida – and one of the United States’ fastest-growing swimming programs.
“FLA has been very helpful in making swimming more affordable for minority children,” Wright said. “We wanted to address diversity. I challenged FLA to focus on the black community and then branch out and make diverse communities aware of the benefits of swimming for children.”