Confessions of a washed-up Black swimmer

Confessions of a washed-up Black swimmer

Stepping up on the block, I wait for the whistle that commands my body to get in a diving position. Next to the five other swimmers lined up on the blocks, I curl my toes and squeeze my hands on the edge of the block when I hear the second whistle. Go. I push off in a horizontal dive into the water and immediately start dolphin kicking to the surface. As my head comes out of the water, I realize something is missing: my swim cap.

I’ve loved the water since I was a kid. My dad threw me in the pool when I was nine months old and suddenly, I could float. When I am submerged in the water, it feels like time stops. It comforts me to be surrounded by water, knowing that it was there to support me even if I couldn’t support myself.

I was 12 when I decided to start swimming competitively, and that’s where I met my first swim coach: Kwame. When we were too slow to get in the water, Kwame would yell “SPARTA!” and kick us in the pool. When I fell asleep doing dryland workouts, he poured a bucket of water on me to wake me up. He always made us play soccer because it would help us with our kicking skills — although sometimes I think Kwame just wanted to play soccer. Kwame not only taught me how to swim all 4 strokes — freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly — but most importantly, he taught me how to have fun even in difficult situations.

I met my closest friends, Durga and Eva, at the community swim team. During practices, we would encourage each other to go faster and complain about how sore we were afterward. We declared ourselves the “Mermaid Sisters” and would practice our backflips in the water as if we were magical — no one could tell us otherwise.

In the water, I was both weightless and powerful all at once as I glided through the water and barely broke the surface to reach the other side. And I only wanted to get better. I never felt lonely or the slightest out of place, because I was surrounded by my closest friends and swim coach, who were all people of color. Although most people I practiced with looked like me, this was not the case outside of my community team.

Whenever I told my Black friends in high school that I was on the swim team, they would respond with something along the lines of, “Girl, I could never! I don’t even know how to swim, and I don’t want to mess up my hair.” As a young BIPOC swimmer, I was looking for role models to follow in swimming — a field dominated by white athletes in America — and that’s when I looked to social media. Instagram had introduced me to Lia Neal years before she became the first African-American and Asian-American swimmer to compete in the Olympics for the United States, but even then, I saw myself in Neal: a mixed-race athlete who aspired to greatness. Since I also come from a mixed-race background, Neal was my swimming idol and I wanted to break records just like her. At the same time, I learned about Stanford University swimming commit Simone Manuel, who would go on to be the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming. Seeing Neal and Manuel succeed in swimming made me believe I could, too, thrive as a competitive swimmer.

After a couple of years of swimming with Kwame, I realized swim practices were not challenging me as much as I wanted. If I wanted to get faster, I needed to make a change. As I entered high school, I decided to join a competitive club swim team with a tough coach who was known for molding champion swimmers.

Joining this new team was a wake-up call for me in the swimming world. I swam year-round, so when high school season was over, the club season began. Even though I was able to score points for my high school team, I never ranked high enough on my club team to even compete for points. All the swimmers were considerably faster than me and I was always delegated to the last lane, the slow lane. These swimmers had started swimming as early as five years old and their parents spent the extra time and money on private coaching and the best training equipment on the market. I was years late to the game and I qualified for free lunch in my school district, which did not always make the most nutritional meals for high-intensity swimming. Any time I tried to rest, the main coach — an old white man — and assistant coaches would scold me for missing even one set despite not knowing my limitations. “Why didn’t you go?” they had said. “Everyone else is making the set, why aren’t you?” This unhelpful criticism and more like it felt like personal attacks on my work ethic as an athlete. As a result, I pushed myself past my limits to make the interval times — even when I would be so behind that I had no breaks in between sets — in hopes that I would get faster.

Ultimately, this effort backfired on my mental and physical health. I ended up having a panic attack every time I went to practice and, in order to prioritize my well-being, I had to quit the competitive team and join a team that was less rigorous. However, the cost of this club was much more than I could afford. I ended up working for this club as a swim instructor in order to afford the cost to practice with the team, but the work-life balance was not ideal. I was so tired most days I could barely muster up the energy to go to practice after a full day of school and work.

In high school, I was swimming almost 20 hours a week during the season, which included daily 5 a.m. practices, dryland workouts and weekend practices. After my high school swim season finished, I would have swim practice for three hours every day after school and on the weekends when there weren’t swim meets. I tried to love swimming in its competitive form, I really did. But while swimming used to be an activity associated with joy, friendships and community, it now brought about memories of panic attacks, asthma attacks, several muscle injuries and regret. And, amid all the emotional and physical labor, my swim cap would never stay on my head.

When I put my hair into a bun, a regular-sized swim cap would stretch to its limits and then slide off the more time I spent in the water. After one lap, I would often have to readjust my cap or dive to the bottom of the pool to retrieve it. Once, at a swim meet, I was swimming the 100-yard butterfly — a very difficult race — and my swim cap slid off my head. All of my hair fell out onto my back and weighed me down as I desperately tried to reach the other side of the pool. As this became a regular occurrence, everyone would joke about swim caps not being able to stay on my head. My new coach even jokingly told me that I should get my cap “stapled to my head” so it would stop falling off. I tried everything from using fewer hair products to buying an extra-large swim cap — which broke as soon as I put it on — but nothing seemed to work.

When the International Swimming Federation (FINA) announced that they had banned swim caps made by Soul Cap in the Olympics — a specialized swim cap for Black swimmers with afro-hair — I was overcome with memories of my struggles with swim caps. Because Soul Cap was founded in 2017, I was not aware of them during my career as a swimmer. However, seeing this ban brought me back to my days in the pool.

After I graduated from high school, I quit competitive swimming. Occasionally, I would practice with Club SWAM at the University of Michigan, but every time there was a swim meet, I would back out at the last minute. Those close to me know about my life as a swimmer and how it has mentally and physically changed me, and those same people know that I barely swim anymore. I always attributed my hesitation to continue practicing to the hectic schedule of college academics, but the fact that I could not afford lessons, the proper equipment and access to healthy foods were the main barriers that chipped away at my love for the sport until it eventually vanished.

Whenever I went to a swim meet, I was often the only Black person there, and that was no coincidence. The rise of public pools in the United States excluded Black people and when pools started to racially integrate, white communities responded with violence. They defunded public pools and created private swim clubs with whites-only policies. According to USA Swimming, 64% of Black children have “little to no swimming ability” compared to 40% of white children. In a 2014 study published by the Centers for Disease and Control Prevention, Black children ages 10-11 were also found to be ten times more likely to drown compared to white children in the same age range. As a POC from a low-income household, my career in swimming was destined to fail.

Without the inspiration from Neal and Manuel, I don’t know if I could have convinced myself to keep swimming past my community swim team program. They were my role models in the swimming world and I looked up to them for the barriers they broke and the hair they sacrificed to become world-class swimmers. The ban on the Soul Cap not only excludes future generations of Black swimmers but Black role models for swimmers as well.

U.K. swimmer Alice Dearing, a partner of Soul Caps, is going to be the first woman of color to represent Great Britain at the Olympics for swimming. Her advocacy for BIPOC representation at the Olympics has led FINA to revisit its decision to ban the Soul Cap from the Olympics, but why did it have to come to this? Why are hair politics being debated in the Olympics? Why are my Black friends afraid of the water and learning how to swim?

Coming from Michigan and living in a city where lakes and other bodies of water are prominent, it upsets me that a high percentage of Black people in Michigan don’t know how to swim. It outrages me more that in spite of Black people achieving Olympic-level success, the institution of swimming still finds ways to create barriers for Black people.

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