Thirty-three years ago this past February, two swim teams from D.C. Parks and Recreation and Baltimore City competed in a dual meet as a Black History event. Both teams were predominantly Black.
Although it was just a small local meet, word spread quickly about a special event for Black swimmers. Soon, Black swim teams from Philadelphia and Delaware asked to join. Eventually, the Black History Invitational Swim Meet (BHISM) became the meet that every Black swim team wanted to attend. More than a competition, the BHISM became an opportunity for swimmers and their supporters to meet, reconnect, celebrate being Black and excel in a sport that lacked diversity.
Before anyone else has a chance to say I will: I had no idea that this swim meet existed until I happened to stumble across it ten yeas ago. In fact, I’ll wager that most of that are reading this didn’t know that this meet was held, but that it’s been going on for 33 years now!
That’s right you read that correctly, 33 years!
Now before y’all get all huffy on me you might be thinking: “Why is this meet still necessary? We’re living in the 21st Century and we have Black kids on our swim teams. In fact, everyone is welcome.”
First of all; you folks might welcome everyone, but not everyone FEELS welcome.
The BHISM was founded for swimmers who are the “only one” on their team and never get a chance to swim alongside other Black kids, the meet is a welcomed opportunity to be the majority.
Many Black parents have said that the meet provides a chance that for once, their child did not stick out in the crowd. For those who’ve never participated in a sport where most of their body is exposed, the weight of being visibly different is difficult to imagine. This mental hurdle (in a sport that many say is won with mental toughness) is something only swimmers of color have to grapple with. Yet Black families, who are continually in the extreme minority on deck and in the stands, worry about how their child’s physical appearance will impact how they are treated. Black parents worry constantly about what a fellow swimmer, timer, or official may say to, or about, their kid.
A couple of years ago I went down to see my niece, Lindsey, compete in an open invitational swim meet held at The University of Southern California’s aquatic center. My niece, who’s White, has a close friend on the team who’s Black and one of the fastest freestylers, and 200 IM’ers the squad has.
My sister-in-law, Lisa, pointed her out too me while we were sitting in the stands and remarked that she’ll be getting visits from elite college and university swim coaches fairly soon (BTW she’s only 13 at the moment).
Anyway, while sitting watching this young woman glide, and I mean literally glide, through the water, a woman seated next too me remarked to her friend: “Francie needs to have a better personal best time in her 200 IMto qualify for sectionals. She could really learn from that Black girl.”
Although I know this woman mean’t this as a compliment towards my niece’s best friend, it really was a backhanded slap towards a young woman that has continued to refine her swimming.
Thankfully, the BHISM lifts all the weight and worry off of the shoulders of Black swimmers and their families. Participants get to be kids, swimmers, and Black all at the same time. Coach Robert Green, head coach of the host team DC Wave, says “At least one meet a year they [Black kids] can just race and have fun and breathe a sigh of relief knowing they are not being looked at or singled out.”
Regarding the importance of the BHISM, Green says “It’s about representation, it’s about feeling like you belong. That’s why parents put their kids in sports, so they can have a social network, a place with friends where they belong.” Green recognizes that although African-Americans have made significant achievements in the sport, swimming is not a common choice for Black kids. “A lot of African-American swimmers are dealing with that double life. If you go to your swim team and it’s predominantly white, you feel like the odd person out every day at practice. And then you go to school smelling like chlorine, and your hair is looking crazy, and no one understands your life. So black swimmers never really feel like they belong – they face that challenge every single day. This meet lets you be around others who understand your struggle – dry skin, wild hair, early morning practice -all of that. And you don’t feel like you’re alone.”
And before you think that the BHISM is some sort of “pity party” for Black swimmers, I’ll remind you that Sabir Muhammad (Former NCAA All American), Maritza McClendon (Olympic Silver Medalist), Cullen Jones (Olympic Gold Medalist), and some swimmer I’ve never heard of named (just kidding) Simone Manuel, all got their starts here before being launched onto the national stage.
So yeah, I’m proud that the BHISM is still around, a meet that Black folk can feel comfortable and welcomed at and celebrate our contributions in the sport of swimming…but I sure wish it wasn’t necessary. But, for now, I’ll keep supporting it and hopefully, next year I’ll be able to recruit some marathon swimmers out of the fold to swim the Cook Strait or Catalina Channel you know, so long as they aren’t faster than me.