A note of thanks to an unknown man

Full disclosure, before 2008, I didn’t know how to swim. That’s not too unusual for folks in the African American community, a lot of us didn’t know, and still don’t.

According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta:

“Between 2005 and 2009, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher than that of whites across all ages. The disparity is increases among children 5-14 years old. The fatal drowning rate of African American children ages 5 to 14 is almost three times that of white children in the same age range. The disparity is most pronounced when looking at drowning that happens in swimming pools; African American children 5-19 drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than those of whites. This disparity is greatest among those 11-12 years where African Americans drown in swimming pools at rates 10 times those of whites. These disparities might be associated with lack of basic swim skill in some minority populations.” (CDC Fact Sheet, 2016)

The reasons for these drowning vary, but some include access to available swimming pools in our communities, transportation, finances, hair (don’t laugh this is a real issues), and of course though it is quite subtle at times, racism. But, it wasn’t always like this*

I’m not trying to throw shade on anyone, but that last one was and is a major factor. The refrain of; “Black people don’t swim,” was always brought up too me when I was a kid. You see, I loved going to the ocean. I grew up in San Diego, Ca (Shout out to all my Kearny Mesa peeps!), and my very first job at the age of 13 was working with a marine biologist at Scripps Institute of Oceanography. It was a summer job that I got through one of those “at risk youth” programs that tried to help out those of us who were less fortunate, in the 70s insert Black or Brown, to get jobs and stay off the streets. I wanted a janitor job, which I thought was cool but this was the only one left and my mom said: “Boy, you takin’ that job!”

So every morning I’d get on the bus and go all the way down to La Jolla, Ca to work with the biologist. I don’t remember his name, but I do remember him being a kind man who taught me a lot about sea turtles, seals and sea lions, jellies and albacore (i.e. tuna fish).

Once, he took me out on a boat and we went out about 20 miles off shore in search for tuna to capture and bring back in captivity. It had never been done before and it was this man’s mission to be the first.

I remember being on that boat and watching the “rollers” as we cruised along on a windless day. When we dropped anchor and they began to fish I look out over the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. I was in awe, I had never seen something so beautiful. One of the guys on the boat got on his trunks and jumped in to cool down. It was a hot day so it made sense. I watched as he leisurely swam freestyle, then breaststroke and back. No sense of urgency, he felt totally relaxed.

“Man” I thought too myself, “I wish I could to that.”

When he got out I walked over to him and said, “That was pretty cool. Can you teach me to swim?” Then came a comment that stuck with me for the next 27 years. Smiling at me he bellowed, “Come on Black people can’t swim!” The whole crew burst out laughing, my boss laughed, hell even I did. I walked off half feigning laughing and half embarrassed.

I never brought up the desire to swim to anyone until one day when I was watching – of course – The Olympics of 2008 and that memorable 4x100m men’s relay, where the US men came back and stunned the French in the final, that my desire to swim arose again.

I watch and re-watch that race all the time on Youtube. Not to watch Phelps get the second of his record breaking 8 Gold medals; Not to see Jason Lezak come back and pull victory from the jaws of defeat. No I watched in awe to see a young man named Cullen Jones, a Black man swim the third leg on the relay. Right after that victory, I determined in my heart that I wanted to swim.

A lot of people say they want to learn to swim for water safety, exercise, be on a team, and those are all important things, but my desire, my chief reason for learning to swim brought me back to seeing the Pacific; Seeing the raw power of the ocean, and having the opportunity to swim in open water. That was my chief reason to be honest.

So, here I am, low these many years later planning my first marathon swim. I harbor no bad feelings towards the man who told me Black folk don’t swim, in fact I thank you sir. I thank you for motivating me – albeit 27 years later – to do something about it.

  • NOTE: In the coming days and weeks I’ll go into more detail about our storied history in swimming and marathon swimming as well.
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3 thoughts on “A note of thanks to an unknown man

  1. Black kids can’t swim. Old people can’t learn. You can’t be on swim team unless you start at five years old.

    Trust me. That is all crap. I’ve taught swimming for nearly thirty years. Toddlers through senior citizens. People who had vision issues, languages I didn’t speak, hearing issues, any body mass index, missing limbs, non-functioning limbs, fear, a cultural background that meant that their first time getting in any sort of water at all was at age forty or older.

    The only people who cannot swim are the people who don’t get in and try. Some people may need to adapt their strokes, or use flotation aids- but don’t all swimmers use some sort of training tool at some point?

    After my big swim, I met a woman who remembered the first person to do that swim- Louise told me she was four years old and only remembered life as a polio survivor. She came to swim, as she swam for exercise in the lake most days- often about a mile. When she said, “I always wanted to swim the lake just like Diane did.” I looked at her, and in all seriousness, said, “You know, you could.” We swam the lake last July as a relay. Her non-kick leg did not slow us down.

    Naji, the fact that you have only been swimming for eleven years is an asset- you have the attitude, and fewer bad habits than many adult beginners. Those dorks who laughed at you? They likely could not follow your bubble trail. An yes, when I started teaching, as late as the early nineties, we were still being told that black people were going to struggle with learning to swim- I have to say, I have certainly known black swimmers who picked up their new skills with amazing aptitude- in any population, some will struggle, some will catch on easily, but anyone who sticks with it and masters skills and meets goals WINS.

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  2. Black kids can’t swim. Old people can’t learn. You can’t be on swim team unless you start at five years old.

    Trust me. That is all crap. I’ve taught swimming for nearly thirty years. Toddlers through senior citizens. People who had vision issues, languages I didn’t speak, hearing issues, any body mass index, missing limbs, non-functioning limbs, fear, a cultural background that meant that their first time getting in any sort of water at all was at age forty or older.

    The only people who cannot swim are the people who don’t get in and try. Some people may need to adapt their strokes, or use flotation aids- but don’t all swimmers use some sort of training tool at some point?

    After my big swim, I met a woman who remembered the first person to do that swim- Louise told me she was four years old and only remembered life as a polio survivor. She came to swim, as she swam for exercise in the lake most days- often about a mile. When she said, “I always wanted to swim the lake just like Diane did.” I looked at her, and in all seriousness, said, “You know, you could.” We swam the lake last July as a relay. Her non-kick leg did not slow us down.

    Naji, the fact that you have only been swimming for eleven years is an asset- you have the attitude, and fewer bad habits than many adult beginners. Those dorks who laughed at you? They likely could not follow your bubble trail. An yes, when I started teaching, as late as the early nineties, we were still being told that black people were going to struggle with learning to swim- I have to say, I have certainly known black swimmers who picked up their new skills with amazing aptitude- in any population, some will struggle, some will catch on easily, but anyone who sticks with it and masters skills and meets goals WINS.

    Like

    1. Bridget you sage advice is so humbling and true. If everyone views swimming as a life skill first and a sport second we’d be further along. Man I remember when I went to Perth, Australia in 2010. It was their summer, round Christmas time. Every five minutes I saw some ads for swim lessons or how to prevent accidental drownings. If the US gave even one iota of passion that they exhibit we’d see those numbers go down. I heard from an Aussie friend that told me kids don’t move on in school until they have strong competency in swimming.

      Like

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