From Chron.com, by Lauren Mathis:
|Johnnie Means is the heart of this facility, which was dedicated in his honor late last month. Director and swimming coach for the Harris County Aquatic Program, Means was instrumental in building the facility three years ago. Photo Credit:Michael Paulsen Chronicle|
The words echoed through the swimming coach's mind as he gently hung up the phone: "Non-whites can't participate."
It was 1960, when Johnnie Means was told his students, who were black, couldn't take part in a Houston swimming meet. The experience inspired a young black coach during the turbulent era of segregation.
"My kids were only 10 or 11 years old, and the only thing they were guilty of was being black," the now 71-year-old said.
Means spent the next five decades coaching countless children, including college swimmers at Texas Southern University as well as beginners from his Third Ward neighborhood.
The son of a farmer and horse breeder, Means grew up in the Third Ward in the 1950s. He knew first-hand how difficult it was to find a place to learn how to swim.
Eventually at age 12, he learned from Raymond Daniels.
"He was called the grandfather of all the black people involved with swimming back in the '50s and '60s," in Houston, said Means, who went on to graduate from Yates High School.
Means started coaching for the swimming summer league at the Third Ward YMCA while home from Southern University in Baton Rouge.
In the summer of 1960, the Amateur Athletic Union invited all Houston-area YMCAs to a swimming meet. The event was held at the then-segregated Houston Shamrock Hilton, which was razed in 1987.
Means said the AAU didn't know the Third Ward YMCA was mostly black. A member of the Houston Swim Club, the hosting organization of the meet, called Means to apologize for the hotel policy that prohibited "nonwhites."
Means said he understood. However, a swimmer's mother who was an NAACP officer wasn't as understanding. The mother turned to him and said: "No young fella, you're not going to accept that."
The mother went on to tell an AAU official: "We have world-class black sprinters that represent this country in the Olympics, and you mean to tell me they are not going to let little black kids participate in one of their programs," Means recalled.
The AAU informed the Houston Swim Club not to have another meet until everyone could participate. Two weeks later, hotel management changed the policy.
Though the coach and his swimmers won the right to participate, competing wasn't easy. His swimmers often attracted stares and worse from white players, coaches and spectators.
Means, who grew up during uncompromising segregation, said it was hurtful to watch his students be discriminated against. After graduating in 1962 from Southern University, Means was hired to coach college swimmers at TSU. He said his team, part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, was ranked third in the nation in 1968.
"We were the first and only predominantly black team at that time," Means said.
Though he was having success at TSU, Means said competitive swimming among minority children became stagnant in the Houston area. After he left the YMCA, there was no one else to teach the kids.
When he retired from coaching college swimming in the early 1980s, he started again teaching children how to swim competitively. He teamed up with a former swimming student, Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee.
Means and Lee used pools at TSU and Kashmere High School for their swimming program. In 2008, the duo finally acquired their own facility on El Camino for the Harris County Aquatics Program, a free facility for children to learn how to swim and train competitively.
To instill focus and dedication in his players, Means sits his students down before every practice for a pep talk.
"Get gut-bucket tough," is one catchphrase that Kalen Applin, 16, has learned over the years.
Means has been teaching Applin about swimming — as well as the importance of hard work and dedication - since he was 5.
Dara Naya, 16, has also learned life lessons from Means. "He is a good coach, and he'll teach us things that you can't learn from a book in school," she said.
Means said 90 percent of his students earn scholarships, and "some of them have become doctors, teachers, aspiring actresses."
Looking back on the day in 1960 when he got that disappointing phone call, Means said he learned to stay focused and dedicated, no matter what. It's a lesson he's passed on to hundreds of students.
"I learned you can legislate laws," he said. "But you can't legislate hearts and minds."