We've all read the statistics; the drowning rates of black children far exceed those of their white peers. In addition, the swimming proficiency of black children, accordingly, also lacks in comparison to their white peers; purportedly nearly 70 percent of black teens and children possess little or no swimming skills. Thanks to organizations like USA Swimming (the governing body of competitive swimming in the United States), the Make A Splash Foundation and the YMCA, there have been sustained efforts to increase swimming instruction among black children.
Yet in the backdrop of this seeming crisis, a generation of black swimmers have been making waves in competitive swimming and many of them will convene this Memorial Day weekend for the 9th Annual National Black Heritage Championship Swim Meet, at the Triangle Aquatic Center in Cary, North Carolina.
The Black Heritage Meet was founded in 2003 by Kathy Cooper who coaches the North Carolina Aquablazers. Cooper's daughter's Candace (now a swimmer at UNC-Chapel Hill) was a year-round competitive swimmer and Cooper was frustrated by the lack of diversity she witnessed at competitive meets. Blacks make up roughly 1 percent of all competitive swimmers, a number that only gets smaller among elite competitors.
With the Black Heritage Meet, Cooper hoped to provide a forum where young black swimmers and their parents could network. That first meet, held in Charlotte, NC attracted 104 swimmers; this year's meet will feature 896 athletes of all races, from forty-seven teams and 12 states.
The image of competitive swimming has been given a boost in black communities in recent years because of the success and visibility of Cullen Jones (pictured above), who won a gold medal in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia, as part of the US Men's 200M Freestyle Relay. Jones, who nearly drowned as a child and who was a collegiate swimmer at North Carolina State University, has used his relative celebrity to get the word out about swimming safety.
Less well known are swimmers like Maritza Correia (pictured directly above), a 2004 Olympic Silver medalist and 16-year-old Lia Neal, who is the Junior National champion in the 100M Freestyle. In 2008 as a 13-year-old, Neal (along with Missy Franklin) became one of the youngest swimmers to ever qualify for the Olympic Trials.
What makes the Black Heritage Meet such an experience is not simply the opportunity to come together with other black swimmers. Cooper describes the event as more of a family reunion, where extended family often travel hundreds of miles to see their kin compete against some of the best swimmers in the country. Indeed the sights and sounds of the meet, more resemble those found any Saturday afternoon in the autumn at an HBCU football game as opposed to most swim meet which can be dry events.
As part of the weekend-long festivities, the organizers sponsor a community breakfast, which fetes black swimming pioneers, not just in competitive swimming and diving, but also in the military. Competitors are also given the chance to swim with some of their idols. Last year, both Jones and Correia were in attendance and held swim exhibitions with swimmers. This year, Sabir Muhammad (pictured below), who was a member of the U.S. National Team in the late 1990s, will be on hand.
Competitive swimming also provides great discipline of black youth, while also providing other opportunities such as working as life guards and swimming instructors. As parent Joe Artis, whose children attended last year's National Black Heritage Championship observed, "It's another opportunity besides football and basketball that swimming gives us ... you're not gonna get rich swimming, but you can get a college degree."
Mark Anthony Neal is a professor of African-American Studies at Duke University and the author of five books including the forthcoming 'Looking For Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities.' Neal is also a "Black Swim Parent," who resides in Durham, NC with his family, where his daughters swim for the YMCA of the Triangle Area (YOTA).