By Paul Newberry
Cullen Jones still remembers the first time he really felt hate at a swimming pool.
He was a teenager growing up in New York City, competing for the first time at higher-level meets where he stood out as one of the few Black swimmers.
“I definitely felt different,” Jones recalled in an interview this week at the U.S. Olympic trials. “When I was 15 years old, I finally won a big race. I beat this White kid. Well, his mom walked by and said, ‘Oh, shouldn’t you be playing basketball?'”
Swimming worked out just fine for Jones, who will gladly show off his four Olympic medals, two of them gold, and three other medals he earned at the world championships during his long career.
Sadly, not nearly enough swimmers of color have followed Jones’ path, which stifles the sport’s ability to expand beyond the perception that it’s largely confined, at least in America, to wealthy, predominantly White suburbs.
At the Olympic trials, where hundreds are competing for a trip to the Tokyo Games, it’s impossible to ignore that hardly anyone of color is diving in.
There are only a handful of exceptions, despite USA Swimming’s efforts to diversify its pool of athletes.
Simone Manuel became the first Black woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming at the 2016 Rio Games. Eighteen-year-old Torri Huske, whose mother is Chinese, looks like one of the rising stars of the U.S. program. And Natalie Hinds became the first Black swimmer to make this year’s Olympic team when she finished fourth in the 100-meter freestyle, locking up a spot in Tokyo as a relay swimmer.
In recent years, USA Swimming has devoted much of its attention to the “Make a Splash” initiative, which provides opportunities for more children, especially those in underserved communities, to learn how to swim.
But Tim Hinchey, president and CEO of USA Swimming, acknowledged that the racial unrest in the wake of George Floyd’s death brought to light that more needed to be done.
It’s not enough to teach Black kids to swim, though that’s a significant achievement that will serve them for the rest of their lives. Hinchey wants to make sure more kids of color view swimming as a potential avenue to college scholarships and athletic success at the highest levels.
Even the Olympics.
“We’ve realized that we’re missing a piece,” Hinchey said, which is “finding ways to make swimming not just something that saves your life [but] something that’s a sport for life, which is important to all of us, but a way to convince young kids of any place, of any color, any shape, any size, any ethnicity, to know that swimming can be your sport.”
Over the next seven years, USA Swimming plans to divert funding that goes toward learn-to-swim programs into local clubs that are making strides to diversity the sport, such as the Chicago Park District swim team and the DeKalb Aquatics Tiger Sharks near Atlanta. The goal, according to Hinchey, is to have those two initiatives on equal financial footing by 2028.
“If we can open this up to more people, we’re a sport that would love to have more people in it,” he said. “That’s kind of our focus going forward.”
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for the Associated Press.
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