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Bayview swim team crosses racial divide

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by Patricia Yollin
San Francisco Chronicle

Swimming is an overwhelmingly white sport, but you wouldn’t know it if you dropped by Martin Luther King Pool in San Francisco’s Bayview and checked out the Blue Dolphins.

With every stroke and splash, the mostly Asian, black and Latino youths on the swim team are melting stereotypes. And the club recently made a huge breakthrough – it’s now a member of USA Swimming, the national governing body for competitive swimming in the United States.

“We’ll have an identity when we go to meets,” said James Ross, parent coordinator for the team. “There’s never been a swim club in the Bayview listed as a USA Swimming team.”

Team co-founder Don Lane is in a better position than most to appreciate this development. He grew up in nearby Hunters Point and saw the sport go through many ups and downs in his city and neighborhood.

“In the mid-’60s, swimming reached its zenith in San Francisco,” said the 55-year-old coach at an afternoon practice. “All the pools had teams. By the ’80s, it died down on this side of town. I always wanted to see it come back.”

Six years ago, Lane helped found the Blue Dolphin Youth Swim Team. The varsity squad has 27 members, and the larger club includes roughly 15 other youngsters ages 6 to 17.

Ross got involved early on and brought his sons, then 10 and 13.

“It’s always important for your children to know how to do something that can save their lives,” said Ross, who is black. “That’s all I was looking for. When I was coming up in Kentucky, the pool had no training. I still swim with my head out of water, like a duck.”

He said his sons were “scared to death” of the water, despite months of expensive lessons.

“Don said, ‘Bring them on down.’ It wasn’t more than two or three weeks, he had them swimming,” Ross said. “He’s been around the Bayview and he knows how to deal with kids. He can get their attention.”

Ron Chism and his wife were among the activists who fought to get the King pool built in the Bayview after the old one was torn down. Their four children are all on the Blue Dolphins team at the pool, which opened in 2001.

“We wanted them to swim here,” Chism said. “It’s important to show other black kids they can do it, too. And to see a face that looks like them.”

Lane, who manages the King pool and works for the city’s Recreation and Park Department, said African Americans in particular are wary of swimming, partly as a result of segregation.

“Our grandparents swam in water holes,” he said. “They weren’t allowed to swim in pools. A lot of them drowned or saw drownings. And the family matriarch would say, ‘We’re not going anywhere near the water.’ ”

Pat Hogan, managing director of club development at USA Swimming, said a University of Memphis study his organization commissioned found that 58 percent of black children and 56 percent of Latinos do not know how to swim, compared with 31 percent of white kids.

He said the study, released in April, discovered that the most important factor in whether children learn to swim is having parents who know how and encourage their offspring.

“We need to break those generational roadblocks,” Hogan said.

He said USA Swimming has 2,700 clubs and 315,000 members – 287,000 are athletes, and the others include coaches and administrators. Four years ago, the Colorado organization formed a diversity task force.

“We just didn’t feel like the demographics of our sport were staying in tune with the demographics of American society – not only from the standpoint of being the right thing to do, but for the long-term health of swimming,” Hogan said.

Although only half of members report ethnic and racial data, of that group, African Americans, Latinos and those of mixed race were 6.3 percent of USA Swimming membership in 2007 and Asian Americans were 4.1 percent. The numbers show slight gains since 2004.

“It’s progress, but it’s nominal at best,” Hogan said. “We’re pleased, but we want to make more significant strides.”

He added that children from underrepresented populations drown at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts.

Hogan, who had just returned from the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., noted Tuesday that African American swimmer Cullen Jones had qualified for the U.S. team.

“Having heroes is important for all kids, but especially for kids from diverse backgrounds,” he said.

Jenny Vay sat in the stands as her 11-year-old son, Nicholas, swam hard for 90 minutes. He joined the club two years ago and made the team in August.

“Now he’s more focused and more disciplined in general,” said Vay, who is Asian American. “It gives him a sense of accomplishment.”

Finally, Nicholas emerged.

“The Dolphins are fun,” he said. “You learn a lot of stuff about swimming, you get tired and sometimes the pool is freezing. But it builds characteristics.

“And Don is a great teacher. He’ll push you till you get really good – and one day you’ll thank him for that.”

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Written by Symphony

July 9, 2008 at 2:33 pm

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