Simone Manuel’s win in the 100-meter freestyle at the Rio Olympics is worth more than its weight in gold. It is historic. She is the first African-American woman to take home an individual swimming medal at the Olympics.
Swimmers like Cullen Jones, Anthony Ervin, and Simone Manuel have made huge strides for black Americans who at one point weren’t even allowed in the water. Beginning in the 1920s and 1930s, the racially segregated pools and beaches banned blacks, often with brute force.
Today the stereotype that black people can’t swim is backed by staggering statistics. A black child is 10 times more likely to drown in a pool as a white child, according to the centers for disease control and prevention.
An estimated 60 to 70 percent of black and Hispanic youth don’t know how to swim. Progress is dangerously slow but it is happening in programs such as Imagine Swimming at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights.
Christiana Wilson-King shares her love of the water with students at the program.
“It has to do with access and exposure,” Wilson-King said. “If you weren’t brought up around a pool then maybe you didn’t go swimming.”
Tamia McArthur, 12, feels confident in the pool now, though finding access to one has been challenging for her family.
“The first couple of lessons I had I didn’t really like it, it was not something I was used to,” McArthur said. “But after a while I started to like it.”
In addition to financial barriers, a crippling fear of drowning prevents black Americans from learning how to swim, according to a study by USA Swimming.
“I think the fear comes from mostly our parents and how we were raised,” Wilson-King said.
“I love to swim but unfortunately I am like one of the black Americans that cannot swim,” Patricia Johnson said.
A tragic drowning accident in Johnson’s family discouraged her from learning how to swim. Today she is watching her grandchildren overcome the same fear that has plagued her family for generations.
“It encourages me to want to swim because I want to be a part of it,” she said.
The word I keep hearing over and over again today is “access.” One African-American student I spoke to said she had to cancel her classes because her family couldn’t afford it. Unfortunately, swimming is still perceived as a luxury in America as opposed to a necessary life skill.