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Breaking the Myths: Diversity in Swimming

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"White men can't jump or dance and Blacks can't swim" Type this into any search engine and you'd get a considerable amount of results mainly found on forums and bulletin boards. People do talk about this issue; some even published articles on why too few professional swimmers are African American, and this at the risk of being branded a racist or an ignoramus. But the less than satisfactory number of African Americans in the swimming arena may not be a matter of racial discrimination, but that of economic limitations.

Swimming is an expensive sport to those who live in inner-city neighborhoods. The financial requirements for training and maintaining a competitive edge during meets and championships can be daunting to parents who can barely keep their household finances on the level. Most of the young Blacks look towards playing basketball or football and go PRO to get them out of poverty and into fame and glory.

Diversity Problems and Drowning Incidents

This disinterest among young African Americans in taking up swimming as a sport may have led to the disparity in the ratio of ethnic diversity in swimming. According to 2002 USA Swimming membership statistics, Asians comprise roughly four percent, and African-Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans each comprise less than two percent.

As a response to this gross underrepresentation, USA Swimming, sport's sanctioning body, has formed the "Minority and Economically Disadvantaged Youth Committee", an Ad Hoc committee, which later became the "Outreach Committee", to address the problem. They believe that when more organizations, sport groups, foundations, and individuals study successful Outreach programs that offer opportunities in a diverse society, solutions would then be available through education, cooperation and understanding.

However, there is another rather disturbing reason for the urgency of implementing an Outreach swimming program. So few minority children were able to learn a basic survival skill such as swimming, and as a result, minorities make up a disproportionate number of drowning incidents in the United States. In 2002 alone, nearly 650 children between the ages of 5 and 19 drowned, and more than 40 percent of these came from minorities. It has also been found that Native Americans have the highest rates and black children in the same age range are 2.6 times more likely to drown than whites. In a study by the NICHD on the increasing rate of American children's drowning incidents, Dr. Ruth Brenner has cited differences in swimming ability and availability of swimming lessons may have played a role.

Factors that led to the problems

In the following discussion, several factors are identified as the reasons to why there has been a prodigious lack of participation in swimming by underrepresented and economically disadvantaged youth.

We start by gaining an understanding into the historical and cultural context surrounding minorities and swimming that extend back to slavery. At that time, slave owners kept blacks from learning to swim to prevent them from escaping. In addition, some groups used water as a torture device, drowning blacks and Native Americans as punishment for poor behavior.

During the Civil Rights Era, Jim Crow laws kept many blacks out of public swimming pools. Such rampant discrimination pigeonholed minorities for decades.

But one of the most unshakable myths regarding swimming is that black kids simply don't — and can't — swim. This ridiculous notion is based on a 1969 study called The Negro and Learning to Swim, which said that blacks were biologically less buoyant than whites because of higher density in their bones and body mass.

Most coaches, however, laugh at the thought, saying it's a study that needs to be challenged and discredited in public. Lee Pitts, founder of the Lee Pitts Swim School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has been quoted in an interview that swimming ability had absolutely nothing to do with biological or anatomical differences between the racial groups. He added that "we all need to start dismissing these stereotypes and give them no credence so they can slowly erode."

Another factor, one that is largely influential, is money. It costs swimming families approximately $1000-$2000 annually per child to participate in the sport. Cost considerations: team membership, USA Swimming registration, competitions, swimsuits, goggles, travel, and other expenses. Unfortunately, many city budgets do not have enough provisions for the retrofitting or the construction of an Olympic-size swimming pool in schools and the general financial support for the improvement of the city's sports programs.

Related to financial constraints are the costs of transportation to and from practice and competitions. Many children involved in Outreach programs come from single parent households and/or single or no car households. Single parents often are unable to transport their children because of their work hours.

Incidentally, religion may be a factor as well. In many Native American belief systems, for instance, discussing mortality is frowned upon. Among Hispanics, who are often Catholics and very traditional, parents sometimes prefer that genders be separated and that swimming classes be conducted in Spanish. Some Hispanics even prefer wearing T-shirts over their swim attire.

Infusion of Role Models

However, another reason for the diversity problem is that not a lot of black athletes are involved in the successful side of swimming. The ethnic backgrounds of team coaches, board of directors and professional athletes are important factors in encouraging the youth to participate in swimming programs. The kids needed somebody they can relate to.

Louis Harrison, a professor at Louisiana State University who studies minority sports participation, backs that theory. He wrote in 1995: "There are few, if any, African-American models, and because there are low expectations for participation in these activities, the student does not see him or herself participating in such activities."

It's a good thing the newest crop of popular swimming athletes who can be good role models are becoming ethnically diverse. African American swimming champs like Byron Davis, Michael Norment, Maritza Correia, Sabir Muhammad, and Keiko Price are steadily rising to the challenge of pioneering a black revolution in an otherwise dominantly white sport.

Insights from Champs

The Legendary Byron Davis

Byron Davis and his family live in Tarzana, Calif., 15 minutes outside of Los Angeles where he works. "I work on New York hours. Swimming prepared me to wake up at 4:45 every morning," Davis said with a laugh.

Though he no longer swims competitively and is more into sailing and scuba diving, Davis uses his life's experiences in swimming to motivate, challenge and change the lives of young athletes of all races and economic background.

"I have learned that one of the greatest advantages an athlete has in his or her pursuit of greatness is the advantage to assess setbacks," Davis said. "By learning to use every experience to your advantage, success and breakthroughs become almost inevitable. The key is just staying in the game long enough to see your persistence pay off.

"It wasn't tough for me to hang up my trunks," Davis said. "I accomplished all I wanted to in the sport."

Davis has always set lofty goals for himself. He has been a role model for African-American athletes – not just swimmers – since he burst onto the high school and college swim scene. His race brought more attention at the 1996 Olympic Trials. For Davis, his race was irrelevant to what he was trying to accomplish.

"It comes with the territory, and I knew [my race] came with the territory, and accepted it," Davis said. "It is a sad commentary where society was [when I was swimming] – and still is in many ways – that my race is still making news. I was an African-American in a predominantly white sport. I never allowed myself to think that I had the weight of an entire community on my shoulders…that if I failed, I failed a whole race of people. It wouldn't have been fair or appropriate to take on that kind of pressure.

"I recognized I was a role model, and I enjoyed being a role model. I think I embrace that more than anything. There is nothing wrong with being a role model as long as people understand all humans make mistakes. I think my passion, hope and prayer for life in general came through. Martin Luther King once said that he wanted people to judge him not by the color of his skin but the content of his character."

At the 2000 Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, Davis was among the half-dozen or so athletes who had a shot at breaking the race barrier at the Sydney Games, but it was sprinter Anthony Ervin who became the first swimmer of African-American heritage to make the U.S. Olympic team in 2000. Ervin tied Gary Hall for gold in the 50m free and added a silver medal in the 400m free relay at the 2000 Sydney Games. And then, four years later, Maritza Correia of Valrico, Florida., won a silver in the 400-meter relay in Athens.

An excerpt from "Inner City Swimming: A Coach's Perspective" by Sabir K. Muhammad II

I once believed that access to swimming facilities and equipment was what kept the average inner city kid from swimming; however now I believe that there are other issues. When I think back to when I was 8 years old, I often wonder what it was that steered me towards the water, and I realize now that the major reason I became a swimmer was because of a charismatic lifeguard-turned-swim coach, Charles Canady.

I met coach Charles, a big man with an even bigger smile, at one of Atlanta's most notorious housing projects – Perry Homes. My mother, Jessica, worked at the project's pool, and I would go there after school and splash around in the pool. Charles taught me the formal swimming strokes after he recognized that I wasn't comfortable in the water. He told me that I would have learn to swim correctly because one day I might need to save someone from drowning – myself. Soon after I learned all the strokes, I started swimming on the newly formed Perry Homes Diplomats swimming team with the Bashirs, a huge family of swimmers and Coach Charles.

Coach Charles, along with Askia Bashir, introduced us all to swimming and made swimming something we liked doing. He would use every incentive he could think of to motivate us. Everything, from "all you can eat buffets," to candy to monetary prizes, was offered to us as a way to get us excited about swimming. Coach Charles would relate swimming to us in such a way that we couldn't help but get excited about competing and winning. He helped us city kids to understand that swimming was a sport that we could excel in and gain recognition. "Not everyone needs to play basketball," he would always say.

Coach Charles was forced to get our parents excited about swimming as well because, as he puts it, "they are the hardest to teach." He says that in order to get swimmers to commit to swimming, you have to get the parents to adapt to the culture of the sport. Our parents did not understand that we needed to swim five days a week to improve and be competitive. Coach Charles had to make our parents comfortable with the pool and competitive swimming environment. As he put it, "Most parents will sit in football bleachers in the pouring rain to watch their kids compete, but won't sit down and wait for their kids swimming heat if it comes after the 400 free."

Coach Charles did a great deal to help translate the sport to our parents, and once our parents understood swimming, he was able to introduce us to the various levels of training necessary to develop us into competitors. Coach Charles is an excellent developmental coach, because he understands that new swimmers need motivation because there are so many sports from which to choose. Soccer, tennis and golf are new sports that are accessible to greater numbers of minority children and a coach "has to work harder nowadays to get children to commit."

There are many factors that eventually lead to every athlete's choice of sports. One factor that we mustn't overlook is the importance of the instructors and coaches that play a vital role developing our swimmers.

Maritza Correia Breaking Barriers

Maritza Correia was born in Puerto Rico, but her parents are from Guyana. She went to school in England. She was diagnosed with scoliosis at age six, and doctors recommended either swimming or gymnastics for her. She also used to do ballet before playing in the track and field events, and then later she focused solely on swimming.

Correia joined the Brandon Blue Wave Swim Club in 1990. The only other black swimmer she saw at practice and at many competitions was her older brother, Justin.

Race has never been a big issue in Correia's life. The only reason she thinks about it is that people keep asking about it.

"We've never had a racial problem," said Correia's mother, Anne, a registered nurse. "She's never been any different than anyone else, and it's not an issue at home."

"I've always been around a lot of ethnicity," said Correia, who graduated from Tampa Bay Tech, which has one of the highest enrollments of African-American students in Hillsborough County. "Race is not important. Everybody's the same."

In 2004, Ritz as she was called by friends became the first and only black woman to qualify for an Olympic swim team.

She has done work with inner city schools and detention centers to get kids involved in sports, particularly swimming.


African-American Swimmers (Byron Davis/Michael Norment/Maritza Correia/Sabir Muhammad/Keiko Price)

By Sharon Robb, Special Splash Correspondent, January-February 2002

Maritza Correia: First Black Woman To Swim For USA In Olympics

Inner City Swimming: A Coach's Perspective

By Sabir K. Muhammad II, Splash Magazine Special Correspondent, January-February 2002

In the Minority

First in a Two-Part Series

Reaching Out

Second in a Two-Part Series

by Shabnam Mogharabi

Swimming Laps Around the Stereotypes

By John M. Glionna, Times Staff Writer, February 18 2006

Water Colors -- A Special Splash Magazine Look at Diversity in USA Swimming

by Tom Slear, Splash Magazine Special Correspondent, January-February, 2002

Where U.S. Children Drown

Part 1: First ever statistical report on child drownings

Where U.S. Children Drown

Part 2: More data & preventative measures

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