Feature by Jeff Commings
CHERRY HILL, New Jersey, October 8. WHEN talk of diversity in swimming arises, the topic almost always revolves around race. Danielle Strader-Bordi understands the tendency to primarily focus on the color of an athlete's or coach's skin, but the former USA Swimming national team member sees “diversity” as a much broader term.
“Diversity isn't just about race,” she said. “It's gender, culture, sexual preference, socioeconomic status, all differences.”
To help increase awareness about all aspects of diversity in swimming, Strader-Bordi helped create the Coaches Diversity Conference last weekend in a joint effort with Middle Atlantic Swimming. More than 50 people attended the conference in New Jersey to hear from speakers that had real-world experience with handling diversity in various ways.
Before attending the conference, Mark Yankovich was one of those coaches who had a very generalized view of diversity in swimming. When he participated in job interviews for previous coaching jobs, he said he never had a concrete plan for applying and promoting diversity on his team, only that he supported it.
Yankovich discovered the much larger scope of diversity at last weekend's conference, saying he learned valuable lessons from speakers who have faced many aspects of diversity in their lives. He pointed to swim coach Jim Ellis, who famously led an all-black swim team to prominence in Philadelphia, and disabled swimmer Travis Pollen, as two people who made him understand how much harder he needed to work to actively work to promote and encourage diversity on his swim team each day.
“I thought the neatest thing that was said was that if you have a swimmer on your team that has some type of diversity, whether a disability or is one of the minorities among your athletes, it's great to get them to join your team, but you have to get them to have a quality experience,” said Yankovich, an assistant coach with the Greater Philadelphia Aquatic Club. “You have to find ways to share their differences and promote that.”
While USA Swimming's Make-a-Splash program is currently the most visible program in the country working to get more minorities involved in swimming through learn-to-swim events, Strader-Bordi said promoting the numbers of kids who now know how to swim is not enough.
“We only talk diversity in numbers,” said Strader-Bordi, one of the earliest African-American swimmers to make the USA Swimming national team. “But I feel and the members of the (Middle Atlantic Swimming) Diversity Committee feel that we cannot reach true inclusion until we have discussed the issues surrounding diversity and give coaches the tools to deal with those issues and have those conversations.”
Yankovich said he's long been one of those people to not have the conversations that Strader-Bordi mentions. As a coach and even as a swimmer, he admitted he often chose to not speak up when he heard unacceptable language disparaging an athlete.
“When you're on a team, you hear people goofing around, and they don't use the best language,” he said. “Looking back on my high school and college years, there are times I wish I would have said something, could have said something, and it makes me want to change things for the future.”
The lessons learned last weekend also came from those outside the sport of swimming. Speakers representing the Coast Guard and USA Rowing offered outside perspectives that Strader-Bordi said had tangible applications to swim teams.
“Not having the conversation narrowed to only diversity in swimming allowed us to think outside the pool, outside the box, and I believe this made it easier for the attendees to apply to swimming,” Strader-Bordi said.
Coaches who attended the conference, such as Yankovich, say the discussions they participated in gave them the insight and motivation to immediately work on making their teams more inclusive to all walks of life. The plans they have in mind are still works in progress, but they are happy that something has come along to give them a push in the right direction.
Send feature story ideas to Jeff Commings at firstname.lastname@example.org.