Why are African Americans behind in swimming?

Many a time you will hear: “blacks are not built for swimming” – a myth. Even among the African Americans it’s not uncommon: “swimming is an elite and white sport” – well, another myth.

A research paper by Maria Burzillo chronicles a comprehensive history of African Americans and Swimming, and helps in busting many myths. Another informative read is an article by International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) that outlines some of the major accomplishments by the black swimmers. In my minds, this is the kind of information that our society needs to be made aware of.

We, as a society, have collective responsibility to acknowledge, bring awareness, and act to solve critical problems that our society faces. I have highlighted in some of my earlier articles how prevalent drowning is, particularly, among the children. According to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Report, on an average 10 people die from drowning everyday in the USA; about one in five who dies from drowning is a child under the age of 14; and for every child that dies of drowning, 5 children require emergency care for nonfatal submersion injuries, and these injuries may include severe brain damage and permanent loss of basic functioning.

Even more alarming are the drowning statistics when laid out by race or ethnicity. A research study commissioned by USA Swimming Foundation found nearly 70% of African American children have low to no swim ability as compared to 40% Caucasians. According to a report from CDC, African American children and adolescents aged 5-18 years are 6 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than their white peers.

Per the Washington Post article, we are seeing some improvement, but still less than 2% NCAA Divisional I collegiate swimmers are African American. African Americans have been able to excel in so many other sports, but why not so in swimming?

Why am I bundling high drowning rates and low participation in competitive swimming in the same article? I strongly believe they have the same underlying cause. Could this be a direct result of high percentage of the African Americans not being encouraged or provided the opportunity to learn to swim at an early age?  Swimming, like walking and running, is a basic life skill. Learning to swim saves lives!

The realities, which I agree with, for about 70% African American children with low to no ability to swim and they being 6 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than their white peers can be contributed to:

  • Fear factor (added with some of the myths), mainly among the parents.
  • Economic disparity – swimming facilities and lessons are expensive as compared to say basketball.
  • Lack of swimming role models.
  • A large population in the inner city has no access to affordable swimming pools.
  • Overall lack of awareness of the usefulness of swimming and encouragement by the parents.

It is about time to steer the policies to help communities and remove the barriers for all. It is about time for the parents to step up and encourage their children to learn to swim. I am also hoping a few African American swimmers who have risen to the top will help encourage the younger generation – someone like Cullen Jones, an Olympic medalist, will have a positive impact on the African American youths in the coming days.

I would highly recommend the readers to listen to an interesting sound bite from Jody Jenson on NRP radio.

– Meghna Sil


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