For years swimming was a skill that was not embraced by African Americans and Hispanics, according to a 2010 study conducted by the U.S. Swimming Foundation. However, the value of swimming was underscored recently, when a 22-year-old black woman swam to safety after her car plunged from a bridge.

Morgan Lake, a college student and part-time gymnastics teacher, was driving across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on July 18, when her 2007 Chrysler Sebring was struck by an 18-wheeler. Her car went off the bridge, plummeting 40 feet into the water.

“I didn’t want to drown, I didn’t want to go out that way…I had the time to think I was going to die and the time to process to change my mind,” Lake said in a statement. “I had to stop fighting and to relax my body and unbuckle my seatbelt to swim out.”

But her swimming skill makes her a rarity among Blacks. According to the U.S. Swimming Foundation, “70 percent of African American children can’t swim, which follows into adulthood.”

But, Lake isn’t the only black person making waves recently. Cullen Jones, the first black Olympic gold medalist in water sports, is the Swimming Foundation’s ambassador for th group’s Make a Splash program that is designed to cut down on drowning deaths while altering the perception that Blacks can’t swim.

Cullen said he “learned to swim as a kid after he nearly drowned in a pool at an amusement park.” He said, “After my near-death experience, my mom got me into swim lessons.” Cullen has been swimming since the age of five.

In 2010, six teenagers from Louisiana drowned while trying to save a friend who slid into deep water in the Red River. According to Cindy Chadwick, a spokeswoman for the Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office, “neither the teenagers nor the adults watching from the river could swim.

Subsequently after the drowning deaths, Jones headed to Louisiana to promote the importance of knowing and learning how to swim. Now, he is the U.S. Swimming Federation’s ambassador for the organization’s “Make a Splash” program which is designed to

The U.S. Swimming Foundation also suggests blacks don’t swim because there may be a lack of access to pools and financial constraints. They also noted that cosmetic issues play a role for non-Caucasian swimmers.

“Lack of resources can sometimes play a role in why African Americans aren’t able to swim,” Calvin Holmes, past president of King Fish Swim Club told the AFRO. “Swimming is a sport that you learn as a child because that’s what you saw your parents do. I didn’t swim when I was a child, because I didn’t see my parents swim.”

“It’s the lack of resources and access to pools,” he said.

The skill can be learned well into adulthood. Consider Joyce Shepherd, a 62 year-old Charlotte, N.C., administrative assistant, who learned three months ago.

Surprisingly Shepherd was no stranger to the water. She canoes, is an avid angler and even teaches women to fly-fish as a therapy for breast cancer victims, which she said, ”helps strengthen the muscles in the arms after chemotherapy.”

She has even waded into rivers and creeks to teach other women how to fly-fish. But she couldn’t swim. “I was trying to get past the fear of swimming,” she said.

“It was hard at first. I was scared and afraid of the water, so I just continued practicing,” she told the AFRO.“I just got out there.”

She learned so she could participate in a triathlon, a competition involving running, biking –and a 400 meter swim.

Shepherd swims once a week near her hometown of Charlotte, N.C., and said learning how to swim is simple, you just have to relax. “I’m still taking lessons, however it will probably take a few years for me to be considered an expert.”

March 20 Hampton University freshman, David Esan, 17, drowned in a pool during a freshman week party. Esan’s friends told the AFRO in a recent account of his death, “he didn’t know how to swim, so he was very careful around the water.”

Although authorities are still investigating the circumstances leading to his discovery at the bottom of a campus swimming pool, witnesses said that at the party there was music and dancing, along with some horseplay that resulted in people being pushed into the indoor pool.

Morgan State and Howard Universities, both historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) require all students pass at least one swimming course.

Trae Lewis, 30, a 2006 graduate of Howard University said, “taking a swimming course at Howard has gotten me acclimated with the basic forms of swimming.”

Lewis, who didn’t swim as a kid, because pools weren’t easily accessible said, he “was glad he took the course while in college.”

Blair Adams

AFRO Staff Writer