The women of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority are on a mission: no rest until the cycle of death by drowning in the Black community is broken.
The list of motivators for the organization is long. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 people accidentally drown every single day, and swimming pools are five times more dangerous for African-American youths, ages 5-18 when compared to their counterparts.
In partnership with USA Swimming, which governs the sport nationally and oversees the U.S. Olympic Swim Team, the ladies of Sigma Gamma Rho created Swim 1922. Together, the two organizations have taken on statistics and broken down barriers to access and education.
“Every day we have people of color who are drowning because they don’t know how to swim. It has a significant impact on our society and our community,” Deborah Catchings-Smith, recently elected sorority international grand basileus, told the AFRO. “It is within our capability and responsibility to get actively involved in making a difference. We believe elevating awareness and understanding of water safety will reduce the staggering number of drownings that occur in our communities.”
Swim 1922 sponsors water safety programming in schools, institutions of higher learning, and community pools throughout the country. Through over 72 swim events and clinics the initiative has educated thousands of African Americans of every age group. The clinics teach everything from fundamentals of swimming to rescue tactics and can even take place sans water when there is an issue getting into a pool.
“Through local initiatives, we have been able to provide funding for scholarships to the YMCA and other community centers, further reducing the barriers to swim lessons and clinics in the local communities,” said Catchings-Smith.
Swim 1922 demonstrates how mothers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers can save lives. “We recognize the power of the women,” Catchings-Smith said. “Women, in a lot of cases, are the leaders of households in our community.”
The partnership came after the USA Swimming Foundation commissioned the University of Memphis to do a study that discovered: “70% of African American children and nearly 60% of Hispanic children have low or no swim ability, compared to 40% of Caucasians.”
The study also found: “If a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that a child in that household will learn how to swim.”
Joan Loveless, the 22nd and immediate past international basileus of the Sigma Gamma Rho was instrumental in forging the partnership with USA Swimming.
“This is not an activity,” an impassioned Loveless told participants of a clinic in material released by USA Swimming. “Sometimes, we do ‘community service activities’ – it’s a one-time thing. No! This is a movement. This is something that we’re going to live with from here on out!”
According to USA Swimming, if a child learns to swim early, his or her chances of drowning before age 4 are cut by 88 percent.
“This is very, very special to me,” said Matt Farrell, chief marketing officer of USA Swimming, in the same material released by the organization. “When we started this partnership, I hoped there was something. But to be quite honest with you I didn’t really get it—yet. Then I received this letter from Joan Loveless.
“It was the absolute most touching, heartfelt personal experience of what swimming did for her. It brought a tear to my eye,” he said. “This was – in all my personal and professional career – the best letter I’ve ever received of what a partnership truly meant to people.”
The name of the program, “Swim 1922” is a nod to the history of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, as it was founded on Nov. 12, 1922. The sorority has a long record of making a splash in the pool. Swimming with the Jamaican flag on her cap in Rio, Alia Atkinson broke barriers in 2014 with her 100-meter breaststroke that took the world title. Atkinson pledged the sorority in 2014.
In 2004, Maritza McClendon became the first Black female swimmer to make a U.S. Olympic swim team. The Sigma Gamma Rho member helped Team USA win the 400-meter freestyle relay that year—a long way from the humble beginnings she had swimming as a child to fix her scoliosis. She now helps other young swimmers and Olympic athletes, such as Simone Manuel, who is now the first Black woman to earn a gold medal in an individual swim event.