Merlene Davis: With Olympians as our models, it's time for more black children to learn to swim

Trio of Athletes clear pool of myths, stereotypes

Herald-Leader columnistJuly 5, 2012 

I am an Olympic Games junkie. I've stated it before, but it's worth saying again.

Doesn't matter if the games occur in the summer or winter, I will be glued to my TV set, watching curling, bobsledding, track or swimming. Whatever. I'm there.

But this year's summer Games have given me an added reason to watch. This year there are three — count them, three — black American swimmers vying for medals.

Never before in U.S. Olympic swimming history has there ever been more than one black athlete in that category in the Games.

I see that as a reason to celebrate because I am so tired of hearing people, black and white, saying black people can't swim.

Admittedly, I don't swim. I have an in-ground pool in my back yard, and I don't swim. I splash and float on an inflatable toy, but swim I don't.

Our mother insisted her three children take free lessons given by the American Red Cross. I took them, but they just didn't sink in. (Pun intended.)

We bought a house with a pool and paid for swimming lessons for our children just so they wouldn't be like their mother.

Cullen Jones, Anthony Ervin and Lia Neal will give all children, black children especially, reason to close their ears to naysayers and learn to swim as athletically as they perform in other sports.

Neal, 17, placed fourth in the Olympic 100-meter freestyle finals over the weekend, making her the second black female to have a spot on the U.S. swim team.

Jones, spokesman for the national Make a Splash program that encourages minorities to swim, beat out Ervin by a 100th of a second in the men's 50-meter freestyle.

I'm not sure when the belief began that black people cannot swim.

In fact, according to The International Swimming Hall of Fame, European explorers as early as 1455 found Africans to be accomplished, strong swimmers.

Alvise Cadamosto, a famous Venetian captain who explored the west coast of Africa for Portugal's royal family, noted that mothers put their children in water every day, making sure they learned to swim early.

On one occasion, when he needed to get word to his crew that he would be traveling overland, a Budomel swimmer swam the 3 miles to the ship and back again during a violent storm. The swimmer, "after battling for more than an hour with the wind and the waves, passed the bank, carried my letter to the ship, and brought me the answer," Cadamosto wrote. "I dared hardly touch it, looking upon it as such a wonderful and sacred thing. And thus I learned that the Negroes of Budomel are the best swimmers in the world."

The ISHF also noted that the phrase "underground railroad" originated in 1831 when Tice Davids, a Kentucky slave, jumped into the Ohio River to flee his owner who rowed after him in a boat. When he didn't see Davids again, the owner assumed he had drowned, telling the local newspaper Davids must have taken "an underground railroad," to his final destination. Meanwhile, Davids swam to Ripley, Ohio, and freedom.

So what happened to black swimmers between then and now?

Some historians say the segregation of public pools played a big role in deterring blacks from aquatic activities. A fear of the unknown, a fear of drowning, grew out of that.

Still, black boys would dare to swim sometimes, but girls would hesitate, not wanting to ruin their hairdos, which can be difficult to maintain.

A study by USA Swimming reported that nearly 70 percent of black children surveyed said they had inadequate swimming skills, if any at all. About 58 percent of Hispanic children had no or low swimming ability, and, for white children, the number was 42 percent.

The study found that if parents can't swim, more than likely their children won't either.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said for ages 5 to14, black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. Olympian Jones almost drowned at a water park when he was 5. Within a week, his mother, who could not swim, took him to swimming lessons. Now he is an Olympic gold medalist and traveling to London seeking more medals.

"I know there's a big stigma, (that) in the U.S., black people don't swim," Jones told Today.com in 2008. "But if you go to the Caribbean, it's unheard of for people not to know how to swim. If you go to Africa, black people do know how to swim. But it's just a big stereotype here. And that's one thing that I want to work and change."

Jones has done his part as a role model. We parents need to do ours as teachers.

Watch the U.S. swimmers with your children and then find them some swimming lessons.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service