How Can There Be More Black Collegiate Swimmers in the United States?


How Can There Be More Black Collegiate Swimmers in the United States?

Black swimming participation rates continue to be alarmingly low in the United States. African-American/Black swimmers make up only 1% of both USA and NCAA Swimming. Many factors contribute to these statistics, such as the sport’s affordability, facility access, and role model recognition. 

So, how do we change that? 

It all begins with putting systems in place to set black swimmers up for success. I believe that starts at the grassroots level. 

Here are a few proposals that I think, if implemented, could stimulate black swimming’s growth at the collegiate level in both the short and long-term.  

1. Learn to Swim Programs at Colleges/Universities 

One of the biggest obstacles for black people and swimming is lacking access. Whether it be not having a pool nearby or being unable to afford YMCA fees, they do not have opportunities to get into the sport. Cities such as Baltimore, Atlanta, and Detroit have a high black population and numerous colleges nearby. College swim teams could offer their facilities and athletes on weekends and teach kids from nearby communities how to swim. Starting learn-to-swim programs would result in increased swimming participation and decreased drowning rates. Additionally, developing relationships through this initiative can help improve community relations between the schools and the area involved. 

2. Expanding Black Heritage Swim Meets


Photo Courtesy: Skylar Smith

Currently, Washington D.C. and North Carolina are the only two states with black heritage swim meets. While a step in the right direction for black swimming, I believe there needs to be an expansion to those two meets. One way would be additional meet locations. For example, they could add meets in places like Florida, Georgia, Texas, and California. The meet could also adopt a similar format to the U.S. Open and the TYR Pro Series, where they compile results from all the meets to determine winners in each event. Having only two black heritage/history swim meets in the entire United States, both on the East Coast, excludes black swimmers from other parts of the country from being able to compete. Establishing meet sites throughout America will give every black swimmer a chance to participate.

Another idea is to mimic the format of many state meets. Numerous states have a meet series that consists of a district, regional, and state championship. The district meet would be similar to the first proposal and be multiple meets across the country. The top 24 swimmers in each event per region of the country would advance to a regional championship. From there, the top 24 swimmers across all four regions in each event would advance to a National Black Swimming Championships. Nationals could feature an “ambassador(s)” every year, such as Cullen Jones or Simone Manuel. To ensure every swimmer has a chance to participate in the regional and national championships if they qualify, USA Swimming could put together a fund to cover the expenses for athletes that cannot afford the costs to attend those meets. 

Adopting either idea gives black swimmers more access to racing and a fun, competitive meet to aim toward. 

3.USA Swimming Scholarships for Black Swimmers

Over the past year, USA Swimming has made great strides to ensure swimming in America is more inclusive. Last September, it formed a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Council and Black Leadership in Aquatics Coalition. Most recently, last week, it distributed 12 community impact grants to clubs to support diverse coaches and provide programming and more competitive opportunities to underserved communities. While the initiatives are long overdue, I am proud to see the organization committing to improve the sport’s state in the country. Additionally, I think they can take their actions one step further. I propose having a scholarship program for young black swimmers. It would be a set number of scholarships given every year to promising black swimmers from inner-city communities. The scholarship would cover a USA Swimming Membership, club and meet fees, and travel expenses to out-of-state competitions until college. Scholarship recipients would also be assigned a mentor to guide them as they progress in the sport and in the college recruiting process. Aside from institutional racism, lack of access and affordability are reasons for low black participation in the sport. Implementing this program would allow the sport to be more accessible and inclusive. Additionally, the scholarship would ease the financial burden on families and encourage young black kids to keep swimming.

4. Diversity Spots on College Swimming Rosters 

Although growth starts at the age-group level, colleges can implement programs to make college swimming conducive to black athletes. One proposal is for all college swim teams to have “diversity” spots on their roster. For example, every team would have one scholarship spot reserved for swimmers from under-represented communities. The scholarship could be given to one swimmer or divided between multiple athletes. Allocating spots will increase representation and opportunities for black swimmers at the collegiate level. The goal is that, eventually, the regulation won’t matter as most teams will already have a diverse roster.

While USA Swimming has taken strides in making swimming a more inclusive sport, there is still a long way to go. There is no “quick-fix” to do so, but I believe taking these steps will bring American swimming closer to that target.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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Art H
1 year ago

This is misguided. I frankly can’t believe the article received approval for publication. It calls for a perverse version of segregation and separatism. In the end, it just leads to another form of elitism, all of which are abhorrent. USA Swimming should not be focused on inclusion any more than it should be supportive of exclusionary practices. You’re talking about a specific manipulation of social architecture in a competitive arena, in essence ‘leveling the playing field’. Regardless of the effect on competition, you arrive at the outcome through artifice. It’s race-baiting and sets up the sport of swimming as just another instance of institutional support for racism, an egregious fallacy.

1 year ago

Progress ?

1 year ago

Your first three recommendations are reasonable, and have a plausible chance of yielding results. Your fourth, that is, providing athletic scholarships strictly on the basis of innate characteristics for certain individuals, will sure have unintended consequences. You can call them diversity spots, but they’ll be funded out of swim team scholarship budgets since, by any other name, that is exactly what they are.

Financial resources and in particular scholarship funds for non-revenue sports can be scarce and to insist they be spent on a social experiment and not awarded based on merit, will surely not be helpful for swimming programs at a time when many are under pressure and their very existence is threatened.

If the first three efforts you recommend are successful, black swimmers will, in due course, be in position to receive financial support base on competitive contributions to a team rather than by being members of a particular race.