Feature by Jenny Wilson, Swimming World intern
EVANSTON, Illinois, April 28. A recent University of Memphis study commissioned by USA Swimming investigated swimming ability in minority youth. The study reported that nearly 70 percent of African-American children don't know how to swim, compared to only 40 percent of white children. Similarly, the non-swimming rate for Hispanic children is close to 60 percent.
Despite efforts in the past few years to assuage this reality, high fatal drowning rates in minority children remains a serious problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fatal drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14 years.
How can the swimming community solve this problem?
In 2006, USA Swimming named John Cruzat as their first National Diversity Specialist. Cruzat tells Swimming World that he had been working at a local urban program when he received a call asking him to take on the role.
"They had been looking for an opportunity to expand the sport into non-traditional swimming communities and we started discussing how that was going to be possible," he says. "Something I had always known because I'm African American was that swimming is not powerful in our community."
Cruzat explains that he and his colleagues noticed "disproportionate drowning numbers" in cities. His findings revealed a startling fact: water safety resources don't always translate directly into a water-safe community. A non-swimming culture often leads to an inherited fear of drowning in minorities residing in urban areas.
"The only way you can get people to change behavior is if you can convince them their current state is unacceptable," says Cruzat.
Gail Ito, an assistant professor at Chicago State University, completed her dissertation on African-American water safety, mentions a girl she met at a USA Swimming Diversity Camp one summer who had to sneak out and not tell her mother that she was going to swim. That fear of the water contributes to the problem.
"Parents deny kids access to the water because they think it's dangerous," she says. "That actually makes it more dangerous."
Arthur Lopez, an inner-city swim coach in the D.C. area, tries to create a water-safe community by insisting that a parent or guardian accompany a child to every practice he holds.
"A lot of children come in having been told the water is bad," Lopez says. "We celebrate so much when they put their face under you would think they won an Oscar…we've broken generations of stigma and changed their life."
Ito cites historical precedent as the reason that minority parents never learned to swim themselves and thus don't insist on lessons for their kids.
"Because they weren't allowed to learn how to swim they did not, and over time they became very afraid of the water," Ito says.
She explains that when pools began to be used for recreational purposes they were not built in poorer African-American neighborhoods.
"Blacks were not allowed to swim in these pools," she says. "If a black person touched the water, they would drain the pool and clean it out. It's a long history of lack of access, and abuse when they attempted access."
The racism persisted into the sixties. Ito mentions Jim Ellis, a legendary figure in the African-American swimming community who served as the subject for the biopic film, "Pride."
"He wasn't even allowed to swim races in the south," she says.
Undeterred, Ellis formed the first African-American swim team in Philadelphia four decades ago.
"A lot of kids don't know how to swim because their parents don't," says Ellis. "That creates an attitude of fear towards the water."
PDR, which stands for "Pride, Determination, Resilience,"—exactly the traits that Ellis himself possesses—was the first team to reach out to minority communities.
"I grew my own program from scratch," Ellis says.
He's had a swimmer at every Olympic Trials since 1992 and in 1998, Michael Norment, a former PDR swimmer, became the first African-American to make the U.S. National team. But Ellis, who has always aimed high, hasn't let success faze him.
"I'm not done yet," he tells Swimming World. "I haven't had a swimmer make the Olympics yet."
Ellis's main goal is to swim at the highest level possible—and that makes safety inevitable.
"I tried to create a culture of swimming," he says. "Safety is automatic for someone who grows up in a competitive swimming program."
It is Ellis's competitive instinct that allows him continued success today.
He exemplifies the extent to which investing time and energy in urban youth can yield results, even forty years later. He recently upgraded from his longtime location, a city-owned pool to a state-of-the-art facility: the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Philadelphia.
"Kroc, the owners of McDonalds, partnered with the Salvation Army, the most efficient non-profit organization in the country," he says. "I convinced them to put a competitive swimming pool here, and took over as head coach and aquatic director."
His mission remains the same, but the setting in which he accomplishes it reflects his casting off the rags in favor of the riches.
Ellis found that giving national exposure to his program improved the team, built his swimmers' confidence, gave them a sense of purpose, and assimilated them into the swimming community. He explains that when the team was formed, it was 100 percent African-American. In the 80s, more white members started trickling in but when the New York Times Magazine wrote an article about the program in the 90s, it diversified even more according to Ellis.
"We got faster too because a higher quality of swimmers started coming to the program," says Ellis. "My team was about developing a sense of pride that high level swimming could be done in an inner-city urban area."
The sport created unimaginable opportunities for some of his swimmers who lived in housing projects and became the first in their family to go to college.
"Their goals and aspirations changed as they realized that the faster they swam, the more it was to their advantage," he says. "That enhanced their perspective on life and raised the bar on what they thought about—they didn't look at themselves as second class citizens because of the color of their skin."
College was never on Warren Lambert's to-do list. He attended a vocational high school and had several job offers when he graduated. But after Coach Ellis told him the only way to continue swimming was to pursue higher education, Lambert decided it was worth it.
Lambert learned how to swim through a summer sports program at Drexel University and met Ellis in the early 70s, when as a young teenager he was swimming for a recreational team in Philadelphia.
"Coach Ellis brought his team over to our pool and they destroyed us," Lambert recalls. "One swimmer said to me, ‘if you want to get better, you need to come see our team.'"
Lambert approached Coach Ellis that day and switched teams shortly after.
"I think swimming in the inner city kept me on the straight narrow path," Lambert says. "I grew up in a pretty rough neighborhood in West Philly and had I not been involved in swimming I could have gone a number of different tracks in my life."
Ellis understood the everyday challenges his swimmers often faced but continued to set high standards.
"I had to work hard at practice every day, but also in school. Coach Ellis would make us show him what our grades were," said Lambert. "He made me realize that there was a big world outside my neighborhood, and as long as I worked hard I would have access to it."
Lambert attended Penn State and swam his first year but quit after that to focus on academics. He maintains that what he learned in swimming still applied however, and he mentions that even now, three decades later, his days at work seem easy compared to the two-a-day practice schedule he endured throughout high school. In fact, he still attributes much of his success to Ellis.
"I've had so many friends who have taken different turns in their life, but because I was exposed to swimming early it has helped me to have a successful career and raise a family," he says.
Lambert's fairytale ending can't be achieved without a significant shift in way of thinking, as recognized by anyone who studies the issue. In urban communities, the attitude to the water is flawed, Ellis thinks.
USA Swimming does make an effort to change this attitude. Nadar Por Vida (Swimming for Life), the non-profit team that Arthur Lopez founded, receives funding from USA Swimming's "Make a Splash" Foundation, a national child-focused water safety initiative. The Foundation's goal: teach every child in America how to swim and do so by establishing "local partners." Ito coaches at one of Chicago's local partner programs called Cougar Sports Academy—a team that teaches swimming to inner-city children with physical disabilities.
Cruzat helped form Make a Splash and says it arose because he and his partners "wanted to create a bridge into the swimming community for kids in urban centers." Perhaps more than anyone, Lopez understands the significance of such a bridge. He was a club coach until four years ago when he experienced a startling realization after examining his group.
"I looked around and saw it was all white kids, which made me a little depressed," he says. That realization inspired him to, "start inviting the minority kids," in order to make a difference in his community. He founded Nadar Por Vida to serve minorities, specifically Hispanic children.
Pat Hogan, the Managing Director for USA Swimming Club Development, has described Nadar Por Vida as, "the best bridge program in the country," Lopez tells Swimming World. By that he means that Lopez's program doesn't exist to take children to the national level as Ellis's does. Rather—and Lopez acknowledges this as his goal—the team aims to bring children into the sport and feed them into more established nationally renowned club teams.
"I don't want to be a Latino swim team," Lopez says. "I'm really good at bringing kids into the sport and pointing them over to other teams." After all, he says, "the bottom rungs are where we get our future athletes from."
As a result of sponsorship from local club programs, every child on Lopez's team becomes a member of USA Swimming, which makes them feel a part of the nationwide swimming community. That idea is crucial to Lopez who makes it a fundamental necessity that "when every swimmer walks in the door we give them a brand new suit" so they feel they have a place in the sport. He's able to do so primarily through partnerships with sponsored local club teams.
But even when people are willing to invest time and energy, the process to a safer swimming culture can be frustrating as there are countless obstacles along the way. Though Cruzat believes that pool access is available and the main problem relates to attitude and outreach, this is not unanimously the case—especially in the city.
Ellis actually cites pool time as one of the biggest problems, saying that when he started in 1971 he had access to a pool but it was only built for recreational use.
"Inner city children need to have swimming pools that are operating properly and safely," he says.
The Memphis Study reaffirmed this sentiment and listed "availability of a comfortable and safe pool in which to swim," as a main reason for the high percentage of children with little or no swimming ability.
Lopez particularly understands this problem as he insists upon an entire pool to teach because at any given practice he will have 40 to 50 swimmers and that many parents as well.
"We now have the entire pool to ourselves for each practice," he says.
He explains that the amount of money he had to raise to accomplish that indicates the importance of financial support through programs like Make a Splash.
"Swimming is basically an upper-middle class sport," says Ellis. "I used to do grants and fundraisers in an effort to try and find a way to make it workable to stay without digging into people's pockets."
At his new facility, Ellis says he's more adept at fundraising because he can reach out to large corporate entities and is in the process of putting together a scholarship program. But despite any financial opportunities that may arise for him, Ellis will never make his program entirely free because he wants children to truly value their swimming.
"They have to put some chip in the game as well," he says.
Lopez believes that the answer to diversifying swimming lies in breaking the cycle of poverty. He charges $10 a session to families, but does not enforce that by any means.
"If they can't pay that, we ask for what they can pay. If that's nothing, that's fine too. The income isn't something we count on."
Lopez says that for bridge programs like his to succeed coaches must understand that it's not a revenue-based endeavor.
"There's a lot of people with good intentions, and the first thing they have to understand is they can't make money doing this," Lopez says.
Last month, South Carolina Representative Wendell Gilliard proposed a state bill that would mandate swimming instruction in state-funded schools. Gilliard explained to the press that his reasons were to offset the high number of drownings statewide in recent years. Ito agrees that a similar plan could work in Illinois.
"Most of the high schools in the city of Chicago have swimming pools," she says. She also believes that partnerships between schools and local YMCAs could be another solution.
"Lots of preschools are connected to YMCAs. That connection could be used to get everyone involved in swimming," she says.
Improving swimming opportunities in urban areas creates a safer community, improves quality of life for residents and enriches the sport as a whole.
"We really have to make swimming available for the kids," says Lambert.