Exploring the Racial Disparities in Competitive Swimming

By Molly Lloyd*, Swimming World College Intern

Depending on where you are, if you look around you, at the teams that you’re on, at the teams against whom you race, and even at the Olympic swimmers, you’ll realize that swimming tends to be a sport dominated by white people. On the 2012 Olympic team, only three out of the 24 swimmers on the men’s team, and two out of 25 swimmers on the women’s team, were people of color.

While it might be hard to realize – or just easier for some of us to ignore – we need to address the fact that competitive swimming, while near and dear to our hearts, seems to have race problem.

What does the research say?


Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

In 2014, USA Swimming released its official report on the demographics of their 2014 year-round members. Under the ‘ethnicity’ category, 31.2 percent of members identified as white, while only 5.3 percent identified as Asian, 2.9 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino, and 1 percent identified as black. While it is important to note that around 55 percent of participants did not note their ethnicity, there is still a stark difference in rate of participation based on race.

Along with this racial disparity in participation, there is also a huge disparity when it comes to likelihood of drowning. A 2012 study published by the University of Minnesota notes that “the fatal drowning rate of African-American children ages 5 to 14 is 3.1 times that of white children in the same age range.” In their conclusion, they noted that there is a distinct, unambiguous link between swimming ability/participation in competitive swimming and rates of drowning.

If there is a direct link between rates of participation in competitive swimming and rates of drowning, the question becomes, why are people of color – specifically Black Americans – so underrepresented in the sport of swimming? What are the possible causes of these racial disparities?

Explaining the racial disparities.


Photo Courtesy: Sports Illustrated

A 2008 survey conducted by the USA Swimming Foundation found that there are a number of variables that have a significant impact on whether or not a child can swim, including “the child’s as well as parent’s fear of child drowning/being injured while swimming, family environment (such as parent swim ability, parent encouragement, family swim participation, family exercising regularly, household income, and parent/guardian education), access to a pool, and awareness or admiration of a highly competitive swimmer.”

Children whose parents swam and encouraged them to swim had a much lower chance of drowning and a much higher chance of participating in swimming competitively. The study reported that Black American children were much less likely to have a parent who knew how to swim, have friends who knew how or enjoyed swimming, or have a parent who encouraged them to learn to swim. Knowing this, it would make sense to say that one cause of the underrepresentation of Black Americans in competitive swimming is that they just aren’t encouraged to participate.

Brenton Tse Photography

Photo Courtesy: Brenton Tse

Another cause is the issue of access. Historically, during the first half of the 20th century and up until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, segregation was common throughout the United States, and this lead to Black Americans during this time to not have access to pools. Even after segregation was made illegal, there was still a disparity in where pools were located: pools tended to be located in traditionally white neighborhoods, making it difficult for Black Americans to learn to swim.

Even now, there are issues with access. Most swim teams that aren’t school teams cost a lot of money to join; you have to pay for the membership as well as the suits and caps and goggles to get you through the season. Transportation can also become an issue, as it requires a fair amount of time and money. While the money issue affects all lower class people, it seems to disproportionately affect lower class Black Americans. The issue of expense is supported by the USA Swimming survey, which found that kids who came from households with a lower annual income were less likely to know how to swim.

How are things changing?

Make A Splash

Photo Courtesy: USA Swimming Foundation

With all of this evidence that competitive swimming in America has a race problem we have to ask, what can we do?

One institutional program that could work would be high schools having a swimming proficiency requirement in order for their students to graduate. High schools that have pools would be able to make sure that all of their students, regardless of race, would be at a lower risk of drowning.

Representation is also something very simple that can go a long way. Elite swimmers like Cullen JonesLia Neal, and Simone Manuel are setting an incredible example and paving the way for black swimmers, both young and old, to get involved in competitive swimming. Even Reece Whitley, a 16-year-old, incredibly fast swimmer who swims for Penn Charter is making a difference. For kids, seeing someone who looks like them represented in the media and in sports will increase their interest in the sport and allow them to believe that they really can participate.

Another question we can be asking is, what is already being done?

Cullen Jones

Two-time Olympian Cullen Jones has taken it upon himself to change the perception that black people can’t swim. Jones started swimming as a hobby and then competitively after he almost drowned at a local water park, Dorney Park. After swimming throughout his childhood and through college, he began his Olympic career. Soon after the 2008 Olympics, Jones signed on to be USA Swimming Foundation Ambassador for the Make a Splash initiative.

Jones and Make a Splash have made it their mission to spread enthusiasm about learning to swim and to encourage kids of all ages and races to learn to swim, because it is a vital and life saving skill. The Make a Splash initiative even goes on annual tours around the country, making stops in Freeport, TX; Alliance, LA; San Antonio, TX; and Chicago, IL. In these cities, multiple Olympic swimmers got in the pool with local kids to work with them on their swimming skills. It’s programs like Make a Splash that are really going to make a difference when it comes to eliminating the racial disparities in swimming.

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, between 2004 and 2015, club swimming’s black membership increased by 55 percent and its Hispanic/Latino membership increased by 77 percent. Things are changing for the better and the world of competitive swimming is becoming less and less whitewashed, but even so, we have a lot of progress to make.

*Please note: I am a middle class, white woman, which affects my perception of the world around me, so please feel free to let me know if I have said something wrong or need correcting.

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8 years ago

“…the world of competitive swimming is becoming less and less whitewashed…” Does that mean professional basketball is ‘blackwashed”? After all, in a nation that is 13% black, some 80% of NBA players are African-American. Can’t swimmers just be swimmers without being labeled by color? This IS the 21st Century.

8 years ago

Stop- stop- stop making racial issues when there are none.

Coach Jim
Coach Jim
8 years ago

Completely disagree with the people suggesting this issue should not be looked at. If nothing else, the access issue is real and needs to be addressed. Outreach is vital to our sport and if you do not want to engage in creating opportunities and access, the least you can do is not disparage the people who are. The knee jerk comments may be at the fact that it puts people like Jones, Neal, and Manuel in a position where they are carrying more weight than they deserve and more than white athletes. They didn’t get to where they are by buckling under pressure but I’m sure they appreciate your efforts to ignore race. Thank you for a thoughtful article and thank you to teams, coaches, pool operators, and communities working to provide opportunity and encourage diversity.

Elizabeth Gibbens
Elizabeth Gibbens
8 years ago

The race disparity in competitive swimming, and public pools, are real. This isn’t a discrimination issue that requires affirmative action, but the fact that there is a 3:1 drowning rate (as you stated) is cause to take notice. The first step is to educate children to the basics of water safety. The Earth is 75% water! Corpus Christi public school system has a mandatory program to teach basic water safety and swimming to ALL elementary school kids, for FREE. Start with eliminating the fear and the barriers that swim lessons are for the “privileged” then add swim clubs to the mix and you get higher participation across the board. Competing with football in Texas is a big enough tackle, but competing with a multi-generational un-encouraging family structure, then you can hang up your fins. There is opportunity for improvement, but it’s not through highlighting past segregation and missed opportunities. Personally, I think using the public pools for positive “safe zones” seems like a better use of our tax money and time.

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