Swimming Lessons for Black Girls -The Toast

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In the year since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, graphic videos and images of police brutality against unarmed black Americans have flooded social media feeds, thanks to the potent combination of ubiquitous cell phone cameras and the tireless efforts of Black Lives Matter activists. Like many, I’ve followed this stream of events with increasing frustration and horror, as these incidents remind us of racism and police brutality’s knock-on effects. Racist police brutality degrades community morale, it sows mistrust between officers and the communities they are supposed to serve, and it escalates future encounters between police officer and citizen almost before they start.

When police officer Eric Casebolt manhandled Dajerria Becton, a bikini-clad teenager, earlier this summer in McKinney, Texas, his actions similarly called to mind a much longer history of racism’s corrosive effects on black communities. As many others noted at the time, there is a long history and continuing present of swimming pools as deeply segregated spaces where African Americans have been viewed as suspicious and unwanted elements. But for me, the events in McKinney, and subsequent pool incidents that received less media attention, were particularly distressing because swimming, to me, is deeply personal. When I was Dajerria Becton’s age, I spent countless hours in and around pools in predominantly white neighborhoods. I was that rare thing: an African-American competitive swimmer.

There’s a devastating truth behind the stereotype that black people can’t swim. With drowning a leading cause of unintentional childhood death, all children are at risk, although that risk is not equally distributed. According to USA Swimming’s 2010 study, nearly 70% of African-American children and 60% of Hispanic children have little to no swimming skills, while only 40% of Caucasian children have the same. As a result, black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. Further, children whose parents who can’t swim, regardless of race, are much less likely to learn. Parental fear seems to be one of the strongest reasons for this trend.

Christienna & Mom swimming The author with her mother

My parents, especially my mother, were perhaps exceptions to this rule. I’ve never seen my father swim or even step near water, but he fought in Vietnam, so I assume he could at some point. As for my mother, I don’t know whether she knew how to swim; if she did, she wasn’t particularly comfortable in the water. She was born and raised in Jamaica’s Blue Mountains, and she must have played in mountain streams as a young child, but that didn’t translate into her becoming a confident swimmer. Aside from a photograph of us at some kind of mommy-and-me infant swimming class, I have no recollection of her ever swimming. Nevertheless, she insisted that I learn.

I started taking classes at city recreation centers at age five or six, but weekly instruction wasn’t enough for my mother. Many evenings, my mother would fill the bath tub with water so that I could practice blowing bubbles every time my face was in the water. Ever since I watched Janet Evans swim to gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, I had wanted to be a swimmer, so I was ecstatic when I found out I was going to start taking lessons. (I then came down with chicken pox on the morning of my first lesson, a crushing blow.) I was as eager about those makeshift underwater breathing bathtub sessions as my mother was. I also practiced in the pool at one of the nearby military bases, to which we had access thanks to my father’s Army service.

It was during rec center swimming lessons that we discovered that I was a natural breaststroker. The first sign, not that we recognized it at the time, was the ease with which I took to elementary backstroke, a leisure stroke swum on your back. Elementary backstroke bears no resemblance to competitive backstroke, using a frog instead of a flutter kick, among other differences. At one point, as I was gliding through a lap of elementary backstroke, someone told my mother that I looked beautiful. (This was a marked contrast to the flailing, choking mess I would be on actual backstroke.)

A few years later, as I progressed on to more advanced levels, we learned breaststroke. Breaststroke uses the same frog kick as elementary backstroke, but requires more hip and ankle flexibility to generate power than the other three competitive strokes. It’s the slowest of the four strokes, but the most technically precise. At the competitive level, it also requires precise timing that can be difficult to master.

The instructor demonstrated the basic mechanics of the stroke for us. When I then dove into the water to try it myself, the stroke clicked instantly. I knew immediately — and I remember this realization with surprising clarity — that this was my stroke. It’s why I eventually progressed from lessons to competitive swimming. My freestyle was nothing to write home about, dashing my dreams of distance swimming like Janet, but when I swam breaststroke, I was faster than most of those around me.

Rec center lessons were my path to competitive swimming, yet that was never my mother’s purpose in signing me up for classes. She was probably hoping I would be good at tennis, another sport I learned at the rec center. Swimming, for her, was about survival, making sure I had a fighting chance to save myself if I ever found myself in a dangerous situation in the water. She was also very cautious: although I grew up in Virginia Beach, we rarely went to the beach, and the handful of times we did I was never allowed to do any serious ocean swimming. She waited until I was nine to let me go to sleepaway camp — two years later than the camp required — for fear that I might not be safe in the water.

My mother was probably a little more concerned than she needed to be. The camp I went to was Camp Hope Haven, a Christian evangelical camp that provided a free week of sleepaway camp to children from disadvantaged backgrounds. That week involved the usual Christian camp activities like Bible class, arts and crafts, and sports, but it also involved swimming lessons and horseback riding lessons, experiences that many campers would never otherwise experience. My sister had attended the camp in the 1970s, and while we didn’t have enough money for me to attend my church’s camp, which usually cost over $200, my mother always gave a small donation the years I went.

After years of attending Hope Haven and then working there as a counselor, swimming instructor, and eventually activities director, I now know that I would have been fine in the pool when I was eight. By that age, I was certainly a strong enough swimmer to be safe at the shallow end, and the camp required campers to swim a full lap of the pool before they were allowed in the deep end. But my mother’s caution instilled a powerful message: swimming was, first and foremost, a crucial survival skill, and water was to be respected, though not feared.

After years of lessons and much encouragement from instructors about my breaststroke, my mother began to look into competitive swimming. But learning how to swim isn’t the only barrier to swimmers of color. Financial and logistical factors also contribute to the absence of many competitive black swimmers at the highest level: honing even natural swimming talent requires enormous reserves of money and time. It’s not sufficient to swim for free high school teams — which, of course, many school districts don’t have — or cheap community summer leagues, which, again, aren’t in every neighborhood. To become great, a swimmer has to join a year-round club team, which costs over $100 a month and which, at the highest level, requires early morning and afternoon practices and frequent travel for meets.

In my case, while it was clear that I was a natural breaststroke specialist — with much less capability in the other strokes — it was equally obvious that we couldn’t afford club swimming. We did what we could, helped by the fact that my mother stayed at home, a choice that had serious financial consequences for our family. I swam at the local rec center as my mother timed laps and gave orders from the railing of the viewing balcony. I taught myself how to flip-turn, scraping my back on the bottom of the pool in the process. My mother took me to the rec center weight room, where one of the trainers put together a regimen that I followed religiously during the off-season (which, since I couldn’t do club swimming, was most of the year). I joined a neighborhood swim team when I was twelve — though not in my own neighborhood, which didn’t have a team; or in other nearby neighborhoods, whose teams were too expensive.

Later I swam for my high school team, where I was often the fastest breaststroker and very slow at everything else. Since I had other extracurricular commitments my freshman year, I attended a few of the boys’ team practices each week, which was an exercise in ritual humiliation as they ruthlessly lapped me. But the men’s coach that year was a breaststroke specialist himself, and he helped me hone my technique. (I also made a lifelong friend at those boys’ practices.) When another high school coach, who was also a breaststroke specialist, told me jumping rope helped, I jumped rope in our garage in the middle of winter.

Even with my lack of club experience, I achieved some unexpected success. In high school, my best individual performance was third place in the 100-meter breaststroke, which doesn’t sound impressive but meant the world to my mother and me, given that I usually came last in every other discipline. For a few years, I was also the designated breaststroker for our top medley relay team, which meant I swam in one final at our city championships and went once to the regional meet with the team.

I made peace with the fact that my dreams could go no further than high school swimming. That was okay, because I loved it. Swimming was an oasis for me. All of that lap swimming let me shut out everything else. And during my senior year, as my mother was dying slowly and painfully at home of untreated and unmedicated breast cancer, swimming was my only escape from the domestic horror.

I was always aware that, by swimming competitively, I was unusual. Virginia Beach is a large city with a sizable black population, but I was frequently the only black person at swim meets. This was especially true during high school, when for many years I was one of only two black female high school swimmers in the entire city (I remember no black men). And while high school meets took place at local rec centers, summer league meant the occasional country club meet, where even my naive teenage self felt uncomfortable. That said, I was lucky that occasional discomfort was my only problem, though who knows what my mother may have encountered during the hours that I was underwater and out of earshot.

Christienna at the pool, age 2 Christienna at the pool, age 2

It’s sad that there aren’t more black elite swimmers, that more African Americans don’t swim for fitness or fun. But the aggressive policing of pools shown by the events in McKinney have deadly consequences as well. If, like Dajerria Becton, I had ever been manhandled or flung to the ground, my parents would never have allowed me near a pool again. Not having access to pools means never learning how to swim, which is the highest risk factor for drowning.

Don’t go into the water if you don’t know how to swim, some may say, but that’s easy to say and bears no resemblance to reality. The 2010 report from USA Swimming found that many of those who self-reported low or no ability to swim still visited pools several times over the course of a summer. In the scorching hot summers common to most of the United States, cooling off in pools, rivers, lakes, beaches, and watering holes is one of few free or cheap pleasures. Pools should be the safest places to swim — they have the lifeguards, clear depth markings, and gradual declines that rivers, lakes, and watering holes don’t have. In natural bodies of water, it’s all too easy to be in knee- or waist-high water one moment and in deep water the next. All of these factors can lead to the most tragic of circumstances, like the 2010 drowning death of six Mississippi teenagers.

To its credit, USA Swimming has spearheaded efforts to address this problem. They commissioned the 2010 study that revealed these depressing statistics, and they have created the Make a Splash Foundation to help provide free swimming lessons to children who qualify for free or reduced lunch. Make a Splash’s spokesperson is Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones, who himself began swim lessons after he almost drowned. According to their website, three million children have so far learned to swim through the program.

The annual Make a Splash national tour was in June, and the kickoff events for the tour were held just days after the events in McKinney. USA Swimming promoted Make a Splash aggressively on social media that week: they featured an interview with Jones, who also threw the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game. Yet they remained silent on McKinney. This will not do. When pools are fraught with racial tension, when swimming at a community pool means running the risk of being hurled to the ground — or worse — by the police, African Americans will not swim in them.

USA Swimming knows this. In 2009, a Philadelphia-area swim club prohibited Creative Steps Day Camp from returning after the campers’ first visit,  even though the day camp had paid to use the club for the summer. The Valley Club’s president, Dr. John G. Duesler, Jr., said in a statement, “There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion…and the atmosphere of the club.” Jones and USA Swimming executive director Chuck Wielgus both denounced the club and its president. In particular, Wielgus said, “We do hope this unfortunate incident, or others like it, will not prevent or dissuade young people of color or other minority children from learning to swim.”

Why, then, has USA Swimming been silent this summer?

Certainly the moment is different. While news of the Valley Club’s treatment of the day campers was met with swift opprobrium at the time, there was no racial justice movement on the scale of Black Lives Matter. Trayvon Martin was still alive, as was Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and Samuel Dubose. So too were Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Renisha McBride, Sandra Bland, and Amber Monroe. And while the Black Lives Matter movement is almost solely responsible for the increased attention currently paid to police brutality and anti-black racism, it also attracts much hostility, especially from those who default to blind trust of police. It may be that USA Swimming doesn’t want to make statements against police officers or wade into the political fray.

But access to life-saving swimming skills is political, just as the increased segregation of pool space in twentieth-century America was. If Make a Splash is going to be meaningful, its spokespeople will need to weigh in on events like McKinney. USA Swimming will need to insist that swimming skills mean nothing without safe water to learn and practice in. And they will need to make clear that people of color can’t learn to be safe in the water if they aren’t welcome around it. The summer swimming season may be winding down, but when community pools open across the country next summer, will USA Swimming continue to stand by silently when similar incidents occur?

I don’t swim much anymore, though I always have plans to get back into it. I still follow competitive swimming regularly. I have celebrated the recent milestones of athletes like Jamaican swimmer Alia Atkinson, who became the first black woman to swim a world championship (in 100-meter breaststroke) in December 2014. This past March, Simone Manuel, Lia Neal, and Natalie Hinds were the first three black women to sweep the podium at the NCAA Championship, placing first, second, and third respectively in the 100-yard freestyle. Yet while most of my swimming activity these days consists of watching it rather than doing it, I know that should the situation arise, I have a fighting chance of saving myself. Everybody should have that confidence, but they won’t as long as pools remain the divided and hostile space they so clearly remain.

Christienna Fryar is a professor, historian, and pop culture junkie. She is from Virginia, lives in Buffalo, NY, and calls Durham, NC and London home. Follow her on Twitter @jamaicandale and on Tumblr at cfryar.tumblr.com.

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