Diverse Washington team a rarity in sport of swimming
by Jamie Secola, Pensacola News Journal
Black swimmers are rare.
But that doesn’t seem to bother Washington High freshman Brittney Foster.
“I don’t feel any different,” Foster, 14, said of being a black swimmer. “I’m used to swimming with all white people.”
This year, however, Foster is one of six black swimmers on the Wildcats’ team, which competes in Friday’s District 1-2A championship meet at the University of West Florida Aquatic Center. Washington figures to be one of the strongest teams in the event.
The reasons few black Americans become involved in swimming or even learn how to swim are many. Louis Makarowski, a sports psychiatrist who earned a degree from Iowa University, said the breakdown of black families.
“The greatest contributor to crime and economic inequality has been the break up of African-American families,” said Makarowski, who has an office in Pensacola. “Swimming is an elite sport. To be involved on a team as a swimmer or to learn how to swim can be expensive.”
Makarowski also credited racial identity has a key issue that keeps black Americans from becoming swimmers.
“One issue is racial identity regarding sports and recreation,” Makarowski said. “To be authentically black, many African Americans feel they need to play basketball, football or baseball.”
Washington coach Megan Blyth, who’s been at the school for four years, said six black swimmers is the most she’s had on a team.
“I’ve always had just one or two black swimmers,” Blyth said.
Pace High swim coach Maggie Ramirez has noticed the same trend.
In her 12 years at Pace, she said she never has had a black swimmer join the team.
“I’ve had more success with Hispanic swimmers staying with it than black swimmers,” said Ramirez, who is Hispanic herself. She also is a swimming instructor at Whiting Field and has been an instructor at the University of West Florida.
“Particularly in swimming, it’s the cost and the location of the pools in Northwest Florida,” Ramirez said. “A lot of times, they can’t go to lessons or they can’t join a year-round team because they don’t have transportation.”
According to the HBO show “Real Sports,” which recently explored the complex relationship between black people and swimming, 75-percent of black Americans can’t swim.
As a result, there are very few black competitive swimmers in the United States. The Pensacola area is no exception.
“So many black people don’t know how to swim,” said senior Monique Starke, another black swimmer for Washington. “Every time I want to go to the beach, I don’t have to ask any of my white friends if they know how to swim. But I have to ask all of my black friends if they know how to swim because most of them don’t.”
Lack of access
The reasons why so many black people don’t swim are numerous. One reason is that minorities, in general, don’t have access to as many places to swim as others do.
“Minorities aren’t around water as much as other (races) are,” Blyth said. “If they don’t have swimming lessons when they’re young, they think that they’ve missed their opportunity to learn how to swim. But that’s not the case.”
Diver Tiffany Williams, a senior at Washington who just moved to Pensacola from Texas, was surprised that five other black athletes were on the swim team.
“When I came here and I saw how many minorities were on the team, I was shocked because I’m used to being the only minority,” Williams said. “It may seem like it’s not a lot, but it’s more to me.”
Williams and Foster found it hard to nail down the reasons why so few black athletes don’t choose to swim or don’t know how to swim.
“This is kind of funny, but I think a lot of black people don’t swim because of their hair,” Foster said. “They just don’t want to get their hair wet.”
Starts with parents
Lakrista Battle, a senior at Washington who has been swimming for 11 years, said she thinks minority parents need to take initiative to teach their children how to swim — not only for exercise and sport but also for children’s safety.
“Some parents don’t want their children to take swimming lessons,” Battle said. “My mom wanted me to swim. And at first, I didn’t like swimming at all, but she made me.
“You never know what situation you might be in. You could be able to save somebody who doesn’t know how to swim or just to stay safe yourself.”
Battle’s message for black children and teenagers is simple.
“You have to tell your parents you want to swim,” she said.
Starke also said safety around water is an issue for black people. She once had to save one of her black friends from drowning about two years ago. Starke was on a kayaking trip with her friends when the incident occurred.