The Only One: Jim Gamble Tells His Poignant Story Of Resilience Growing Up Black in Livingston, NJ, in 1975

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West Essex YMCA with Jim.Gamble - Photo Courtesy: Jim Gamble

Commentary from Jim Gamble, swimmer and then coach at the Pittsburgh Panthers, on his experience of growing up in swimming as “the only one”, in other words, the only black kid on the blocks – and why he says “I have no idea what my life would be like if it wasn’t for swimming.”

Coach Mark Rauterkus and colleagues have been collating stories to share with city school students via the Swim Coaches Idea Exchange Group on Facebook, writes Craig Lord. Jim Gamble tells his own moving story below and that requires no comment from this editor beyond these two thoughts:

  • When we tell the story of Alges e Dafundo, the story of Rui Abreu in the mix; when we tell the story of Jesse Owens and Luz Long, when we say sorry to Simone Manuel; when we have Cullen Jones tell his story; when we hear Anthony Ervin,  Lia Neal and Jacob Pebley relate their stories through #swimmersforchange; when we hear the stories and discussions taking place within the BAME community in various places in the world, the UK a case in point; when we understand the resilience and struggle involved in stories like that told here by Jim Gamble (and where that led to in July 2020), we spread awareness of something that binds us in a human experience we can help confine to history. Who among you can recall the first day at a new school; new club; the feeling of being ‘alien’, an ‘outsider’ and then, through the habits and behaviours of others, have those feelings reinforced. Now, hands up those among you who felt like that almost every day of your lives in one regard or another? Deeper understanding is required – and Jim Gamble’s story is among those that delivers just that.
  • When it comes to likes and comments on social media on subjects such as ‘flippers/fins – can you overuse them’; ‘I have a 10-year-old with belly ache…should I …?’; ‘I have two tricky parents… should I …?’; ‘my kid is sooooo bored after 4 weeks lockdown; what should I do!?’ (answer: try to get perspective, including thinking about the years and decades down which some have endured much worse than a lockdown, too often day in and day out) …  and so on and so forth, it is not long before the reactions and responses stretch to triple figures. It would be good to see more engagement on issues that transcend the niche and nut, awareness, understanding, resolution and betterment on which would work to the benefit of us all by making swimming a more inclusive and welcoming realm. 

My third note is to coach Rauterkus: thank you for a  terrific effort and exercise.

Here is what it’s about:

Help with Story Time at our Cyber Swim Camp (Stories Like That Of Jim Gamble Are Gold)

Due to the global pandemic, we won’t be able to meet in person nor go swimming at our summer camp with Pittsburgh Public School. Your help is needed to give our city kids, grades 4 and 5, a quality experience via computer screens.  We’re in a scramble and mad dash to get thirty or more stories of water.

Camp goes for 1-hour a day for 27 days and starts in the end of June, 2020. We want your up-beat, enlightening, straight-forward stories with some water component ASAP. Can you help?

A Story Of Overcoming & Resilience – By Coach Jim Gamble

I was born in East Orange, NJ, in 1962, a predominantly black town.

My father was an Army veteran and taught me how to swim when I was 5-years and 6-years old. My father was also a member of the Orange YMCA back in the 1970s, and he used to bring me with him on Mondays — It was father and son night. And I loved being in the water and being with my dad who was a competent swimmer.

That turned into the Saturday morning swim classes were I learned the different strokes.

I was noticed by the local swim coach who wanted me to join the swim team at the Y and start going to swim practices a few times a week, and by the time I was 8-years-old I started competing for the Orange YMCA.

I was the “only one” on the Orange YMCA Team, so being the “only one” started at a very young age.

Parents divorced an my mom remarried in 1973.

I swam on the Orange YMCA team until we moved to Livingston.

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Jim Gamble – Photo Courtesy: Jim Gamble/s6.cloh.org

Moved to Livingston in 1975 with mom and stepdad. Livingston, NJ, was:

  • all white,
  • 50% Jewish,
  • 50% Christian,
  • .01%Black.

Middle School (7th-9th), years ’74 to ’77, for me was at Newark Academy, a Private School in Livingston, NJ.

Riding the school bus to Heritage Jr High was extremely intimidating, at 13, being stared at and with negative comments being made. Amen for David Fisher — who I had played little league baseball with in town and who sat next to me on school bus. We got on at the same bus stop. Thank goodness it was a short ride to Heritage Jr High School. Then I took another short bus ride over to Newark Academy.

Only 3 black kids in my grade at Newark Academy (NA) but I was “only one” from Livingston.

I played three sports at NA: soccer, swimming and baseball. And, I was the “only one” in all three sports. Yes, I was a good athlete.

I played little league baseball for Livingston’s town recreation team and swam for its town recreation team starting in 9th grade (age 14). Once again, I was the “only one.”

Newark Academy raised its tuition after the 9th grade, and I had to transfer to Livingston High School for grades 10th through 12th.

Back in 1977, Livingston High School was a three-year high school and an all white school. There were close to 1,800 kids in the school. About 600 kids per grade. There were only three African-American kids at Livingston High School my sophomore year.

  • Kevin Benjamin (in 12th grade),
  • Lyle Benjamin (in 11th), and
  • myself (in 10th).

I was the only African-American in my class all three years. And, by my senior year, I was the “only one” in the entire school.

Can you imagine being the “only one” with 1,800 kids?

Yes, the Benjamins were brothers and were soccer players at Livingston, and friendly to me. But there were only three of us out of  1,800 kids. It was difficult being African-American in an all white world.

I played three sports at Newark Academy, soccer, swimming, and baseball. Because NA was a private school there wasn’t much competition making the teams for those sports. So, when I transferred to Livingston High School, I decided to only do one sport which was swimming, an all white sport.

The same story from Jim Gamble in video:

The town of Livingston, when it came to sports, was very political, biased and racist.

Meaning, at the time, when you got to the high school, the coaches already knew who was going to make the varsity team in any sport. And I, Jim Gamble, knew, too. Being the “only one” that the politics of an African-American kid coming over from a private school to a large High School to play soccer and baseball would be problematic. The competition of making a varsity squad was quite competitive, political and racist. I knew these coaches would never play me in the field, and I’d be sitting the bench all three years.

Swimming was a different story.

I was quite talented from such a young age and could swim all four strokes (backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle) very well and fast.

When we moved to Livingston I was truly blessed with swimming pools. I had a 25 yard swimming pool at Newark Academy. The town of Livingston had a local YMCA, called West Essex YMCA, and they had a 25 yard pool.

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Summer Swim Team’s photo in the local newspaper, 1979. – Photo Courtesy: Jim Gamble

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Newspaper photo of LHS after districts with Jim Gamble – Photo Courtesy: Jim Gamble

In the Township of Livingston, they had two outdoor pools. One on each side of town. They had an outdoor 25-meter pool (Memorial Pool). And, they had a 50-meter pool (Northland).

In the 9th grade at Newark Academy I made the varsity swim team and was very competitive being the “only one.” I was also the first-ever African-American male-swimmer at Newark Academy, but there was a female who was before me.

In grades 10 to 12 at Livingston High School I made the varsity swim team. And, I did quite well, being the “only one.” I was also the first-ever African-American swimmer on my Livingston High School team.

In grades 10, 11 and 12, I also swam for my local YMCA during my High School swim season, and I did quite well, being the “only one.” I was also the first ever African-American on my YMCA team.

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High School Team – Photo Courtesy: Jim Gamble

And, from grades 10th to 12th, I swam for my town recreation team in the summer as well as my YMCA team in the summer and still was the “only one.” And yes, I was the first ever African-American on my town team

I was swimming ALOT and year round. At the high school and college level, swimming is a winter sport. But it is also a summer sport as well.

I was constantly practicing and constantly competing from the 10th-12th grade. Did ALOT of eating and sleeping too. Not much of an outside social life either.

My high school team was a top swim team in the county, my YMCA team was a top program in the State of NJ and my town rec team went undefeated all three summers.

All the swimming paid off, and I went on to swim all four years (80-84) at the University of Pittsburgh and became the Assistant Coach my 5th year (85) at Pitt. Swimming paid for my education and yes all four years I was the “only one” on college swim team. I was also the first ever African-American on the Pitt Swim Team and Assistant Coach.

My freshman and sophomore years, our Pitt team was Eastern Atlantic Champions, and my junior and senior years, Pitt was Big East Champions.

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Swim and Dive Team at the University of Pittsburgh. Photo Courtesy: Jim Gamble

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Pitt’s squad with Jim as assistant coach – Photo Courtesy: Jim Gamble

This story is not about my swim career which was a good one, the story is about being the “only one” and what it was like and how difficult it was growing up while doing a sport which is all white to this day.

Jim Gamble – Random Negative Thoughts From Past

  • The stares from the kids on the school bus were like what is he doing on here? Where did he come from?
  • Comments being made like, “Black people can’t swim. Shouldn’t you be playing basketball, football or running track?
  • Being called a nigger, jungle bunny, hey boy or spear chucker in lunch rooms and hallways in school when no adult was looking.
  • Not being able to go inside a friends house to play or have dinner.
  • Not being able to ride in cars with friends.
  • Not being able to hangout like other kids could at the local Friendly’s, 7-Eleven or town diner.
  • Was always nervous about being pulled over by local police when I could drive.
  • I remember a time: I was sitting in my car parked in a parking lot with a friend of mine who happen to be a white female. While we were talking a police officer drove up, got out of his car, walked up to my car, and asked if the white female was OK.
  • Not being able to go to my Senior Prom, because the white girls’ parents said, “No,” — even though their daughter said, “Yes,” and adored me.
  • Even African-American family members and friends made fun of me for doing a white sport.

I have no idea what my life would have been like if it wasn’t for the sport of swimming. Thanksfully I had the support of my mother and father. But I have come to understand that the sport molded me into the person I am today.

I took that negativity and turned it into fuel and used that rage to make me swim fast in the water. I guess swimming was an outlet as well as a therapy session.

I didn’t allow the negativity to stop me from pursuing my goals whether it was in the pool or in life.

Some people ask me what my superpower is?

I tell them all the time my superpower is resiliency, and the fact that I’ve been able to sniff out people who are racist.

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Cullen Jones – inclusion, safety, saving lives, lifelong fun and skills taught here – Photo Courtesy: Cullen Jones’ Instagram

HOPEFULLY, my story will be seen by everyone in swimming and outside of swimming. I want to share my story with the following:

  • Swimming World Magazine
  • USA Swimming
  • Speedo
  • TYR
  • College Swim Coaches
  • High School Swim Coaches
  • YMCA Swim Coaches
  • University of Pittsburgh Athletic Department
  • Livingston High School
  • All Swim Coaches at every level

We need more inclusion in the sport.

  • #swimclusion

The best way to inspire change, is to be the change.

Being a black man or a black woman in the pool is difficult. I hope that continues to change. I’m so proud to see so many African Americans doing well in the pool, long after my career has ended. Cheers to USA swimmers, Cullen Jones and Simone Manuel, first ever African-American gold and silver medalists in the Olympics.

  • All commentaries on this website are the opinion of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine, the International Swimming Hall of Fame, nor its staff.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Tom Buzzell

    Jim Gamble is a kind, good sole in the sometimes harsh world in which we all live. I met Jim as a transfer student in the fall of ’83 at the University of Pittsburgh as a member of Pitt’s swim team. He offered mentorship and friendship from day one. He did so never asking for anything in return, it is simply who he is. If we could all live our lives like Jim has, the world will be a better place. Our lives have diverged to an exchanged holiday card, but I find myself thinking of Jim as bright light showing a positive way forward through his humanity and service.