Howard University Fighting the Oldest Myth in Swimming

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Photo Courtesy: Mark McCluskey

By Mark McCluskey, Swimming World Intern

This year at the Burr Gymnasium, 40 swimmers are hopping into the pool and starting their college swimming season just as any other team does. After a month or so of training, they will begin competing against other teams, again, just as any other. However, when this team walks into the opposing team’s pool, there may be a few double-takes and a bit of surprise from people who have never heard of them. Why?

This team is made up of almost completely black swimmers.

They are the Howard University Bison, and they make up the only HBCU Division 1 team in the country.

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Photo Courtesy: HU Bison Sports

HBCU stands for Historically Black College or University. These colleges were made in the past so that black people could get a proper education despite racist policies like the Jim Crow Laws. Today, they serve as a hub of African American culture, history, and education. There are hundreds in the United States, with Howard being the first ever – founded in 1867. Despite there being so many HBCUs, only one has managed to hold onto a swimming program. While there used to be enough HBCU teams to hold an annual national championship meet, now only one remains.

Instead of being discouraged about being the only HBCU swim team left, the Howard swim team has taken this title and built upon it. Since Coach Nicholas Askew took over in 2014, the team has been able to thrive and not only work to excel in competition but also in the community.

“There is no program like us… Being able to come back and give back to a program that has given me so much is just an amazing feeling,” says Coach Askew, a former Bison himself.

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Photo Courtesy: PWSmith

The Howard swim team fights to beat a myth that people have been shouting for years: black people can’t swim. This stigma, which was born from the racist policies of swimming pools in the past, is still hurting the black community today. Minorities in the United States drown at an almost 2:1 ratio to white people. This proves that the chance to learn how to swim is not being offered enough to minorities.

To fight this issue, Howard has teamed up on multiple occasions with the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority as well as Olympians Maritza McClendon and Cullen Jones to give free swim clinics to local children in the D.C. area. These clinics range from beginners all the way to club swimmers, with every class showing these kids that minorities can and should learn how to swim.

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Photo Courtesy: Skylar Smith

“To know that so many people are reaching out to us and want to be apart of our program is such a great feeling,” says Danni Brown, a former swimmer for Howard and ’18 grad.

“Whenever I’m recruiting, scouting, or simply in attendance at a meet as an ambassador of Howard Swimming, the amount of interest and questions I receive from coaches, parents, and swimmers let’s me know that for the future generation of swimmers of color, Howard University Swimming and Diving is the end-goal for them,” says Salim King, an assistant coach for Howard. “Imagine if every elite swimmer of color became a Bison. We would have the opportunity to destroy so many barriers.”

In competition, the team has taken extreme strides in the past couple of years. Between the men’s and women’s teams, they have managed to shatter 35 school records in the past two years, with 22 broken just last year. After not contending for years, the men’s team managed to win the Yellow Jacket Invitational last year in Chesterfield, Va.

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Photo Courtesy: PWSmith

The women’s team received some big news this summer as one of their seniors, Latroya Pina, was selected to swim for the newly established Cape Verde National Swim Team at multiple international meets, including the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Their success has not just come from swimming, though, as they reignited their diving program last season after recruiting Christian Nickolas, who solely represented the Howard Diving Team. She quickly put diving on the map, earning herself a top -eight finish at the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association Championships in 1M diving after scoring 252.60 points. This season, she will be joined by Justice Brown-Duso, a swimmer who decided to test his skills on the boards this season as well.

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Photo Courtesy: Mark McCluskey

“I chose Howard because the family element of the team was incredible compared to the other teams I looked at,” says Nickolas. “Even though I’ve been the only diver, the swim team’s warmth and support makes me feel like they’re my second family.”

Howard’s swim meets are unlike most, with the team going so far as to hire a DJ for each meet to add entertainment between races. The energy is electric with the Bison shouting from the sidelines, blowing air horns during each race and shouting the trademark cheer of the school: “HU…YOU KNOW” each time a teammate wins a heat. The team puts a lot of effort into promoting their meets as well, hanging up fliers around campus, posting daily to their social media, and making promotional videos to encourage their schoolmates to attend.

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Photo Courtesy: HU Bison Sports

The team is only getting stronger and continues to bring in large classes. This year, they have added seven recruits to make up a 40-person squad – a much different situation to just four years ago, when Howard had a total of about 20 swimmers.

“Being able to see the team grow in such a short amount of time is just amazing,” says KaSandra Kaplan, a senior captain on the women’s team.

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Photo Courtesy: Edward C. Jones

This team may not be the fastest in the NCAA, but they are not letting that stop them from influencing those around them. Improving upon themselves, they have managed to become an inspiration to the African American community, bringing to light that swimming is a sport that needs more diversity.

“We represent a group that is much larger than us, and I think that we have a lot to carry on our shoulders,” says Farion Cooper, a senior captain on the men’s team. “There’s a lot of kids looking up to us, and we just want to encourage and inspire them as much as we can.”

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Photo Courtesy: Edward C. Jones

“While we hold the mantle of the only HBCU swim team proudly, it is not a title that we want to be permanent. We hope that our work here will encourage more HBCUs to bring back their swim programs in the near future,” says Coach Askew.

Below is a video that the Bison released to promote their 2018-2019 campaign:

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

10 comments

  1. Noah Crawford

    Bonnie Shermer Crawford

  2. Jennifer Brurok Podlin

    Sad in this age that we have to define a team based on racial demographics.

  3. avatar
    Anonymous

    I am a proud alum of both Howard University and Shaw University. Although Howard was founded in 1867. Shaw University was founded in 1865.

  4. avatar
    Don Moody

    Fantastic article Swimming World on the HU swim team. This article was forwarded to me by a college friend from back in the day. I swam for Tennessee State and competed in the HBCU championship from 1980-’83. All of the competition was top notch and fierce. My TSU Tigershark squad were the 1983 champs. Other schools like Alabama A&M had the Merriwearher sisters who were from Detroit and they dominated the female events. I was also a subscriber to Swimming World Magazine for a decade and I proudly wore my “I Made It In Swimming World t-shirt(1979).

  5. avatar
    Jim bowser

    Westhill high school in Stamford Ct. has two very good girls of color which are diving well. At times, their coach has been mistaken for their dad. One is a Junior and one is a Freshman and they are the Desyr sisters called Abby and Debbie. Last season Abby qualified for All-america selection. Debbie and Abby average 220 and 250 respectively on a competitive 6 dives for the first half of this season. Honor student Abby has been 6th and 5th in a very competitive Fairfield County Diving Championships and top13 at the High School CT. OPEN Diving Championships. They were recruited to dive when they were 8 and 6 at a local CT. swim club. Their coach J. BOWSER is a former Collegiate 4X Upper NY State Champ, Empire Games Finalist, National YMCA Finalist and CT LL Runner Up Champ. Coach Bowser is a bit of a trail blazer with over 30 Fairfield County Summer League coaching tittles and 15 High School County, State or Open tittles with a multitude of other finalists. Howard may be a great option for Abby and Debby. Thanks to Howard U for providing great swim and dive opportunities for our youth. More people need to know of these great swim/dive opportunities. I am constantly looking for capable athletic committed boys&girls to grow with our Stamford area program.

    • Drew Barnes

      I am proud to say that I have been acquainted with the author and I am glad that he understands the importance of this program for the young kids who don’t see other people that look like them in this sport and who will now look up to them and consider swimming an option because of this article. I only wish that he would have elaborated on the community outreach that the team does teaching young people to swim that otherwise would not have an opportunity to learn. They are going a long way towards helping kids realize that swimming is an option for them at a collegiate level. The broader audience in the country should be taking notes of what this team does.