In May 17, 2005, the city pool in Bridgeport, Texas, was packed with seventh graders celebrating the end of the school year. Some were enjoying the barbecue; others were splashing around in the water.
Luis Gonzalez, a friendly Hispanic boy with a sweet smile, was one of the revelers. The 13-year-old was standing at the edge of the pool near the deep end when a classmate reportedly pushed Gonzalez in and watched him sink to the bottom, arms flailing. The student said nothing, and lifeguards found Gonzalez unconscious minutes later on the floor of the pool.
Despite prayers by family and friends, he died 12 days later.
The truth is, this tragedy would never have happened had Luis Gonzalez known one basic skill: how to swim. Unfortunately, like far too many minorities, he never learned.
Minorities make up a disproportionate number of drownings in the United States. In 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, nearly 650 children between the ages of 5 and 19 drowned. More than 40 percent of the victims were minorities.
The problem is even worse among black children, who are 2.6 times more likely to drown than whites.
Such high water-mortality rates among minorities, who make up less than one- quarter of the U.S. population, signal a systemic problem in the aquatics industry.
Experts say that minority kids are not learning to swim as often or as well as their white counterparts. They blame a number of thorny issues for the problem — race, class, culture, privilege, poverty — that make it difficult for the industry and minority groups to attack the issue head on.
Meanwhile, few lifeguards or role models of color exist in the world of swimming. Though some industry professionals have taken steps to address the minority drowning problem, experts say not enough has been done. And every year, children such as Luis Gonzalez suffer the deadly consequences.
Dying for attention
No one contests that drowning rates among minority groups are higher than they are for whites: The statistics place Native Americans with the highest rates, and blacks are not far behind.
Still, the number of deaths is not large enough to demand action.
“Not enough people are dying and not enough people are saying it’s a problem,” says Gail H. Ito, an assistant professor in the College of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Chicago State University. “This isn’t an issue that has claimed a lot of lives. It sounds terrible, but that’s the reality — it hasn’t become a public safety issue at all.”
That’s partly because research about minorities and drowning is incomplete or simply nonexistent. For instance, Hispanics, who are considered an ethnic group, face a serious drowning risk. But because ethnic groups can be any race, the evidence is mainly anecdotal.
“There are huge holes [in the research]. It’s like Swiss cheese,” says Kaky McPeak, assistant professor of physical education at North Carolina Central University in Durham. “Drowning prevention is in the details. We simply don’t know the extent of the problem. It’s very difficult to go to a grieving family that lost a boy to drowning and ask, ‘Do you think he overestimated his swimming abilities?’ or ‘What kind of swimming lessons did you provide to him?’”
McPeak and a colleague, Thornton C. Draper, director of aquatics at the university, began delving into minority drownings last year and were surprised by the lack of consistent, quality research. They are among many experts who point out that statistics don’t tell the whole story: Existing drowning rates are based on the number of deaths per population. What they don’t factor in is the “privilege” factor, the amount of time that groups spend around recreational water. In the case of minorities, this amount of time is much less than it is for whites, experts say. That means minorities are not only drowning more frequently than whites, but also may have a higher likelihood of drowning the few times they do enter the water.
“I think the key for minimizing drowning in any culture goes to exposure and then to access,” says Valerie Rawls, president/CEO of Hill Rawls Marketing Consultants, LLC, in Schaumburg, Ill. Rawls has investigated drowning rates for some of her clients, which include large suburban Chicago park districts. “Even community pools aren’t in operation. Some of the facilities need to be closed completely or rehabbed,” she says.
That leads to another difficult subject in the debate about minority drowning: class. Many minorities don’t learn how to swim simply because they can’t afford the lessons.
Safe Kids Worldwide reports that more than 40 percent of Native American children are poor, three times the poverty rate of white kids; more than 30 percent of black children live below poverty level, twice that of whites. Their families do not own pools, and these kids rarely learn how to swim. But they still find their way to water — and that’s where many take their last breath.
“Every year, at every pool, there’s a near-drowning or a drowning, and usually these occur on a hot day, after work hours, when kids sneak into pools that they can’t afford to go into,” says Sabir Muhammad, a black competitive swimmer from Atlanta and founder of Swim for Life, a nonprofit group that helps teach inner-city kids to swim.
“Kids in urban areas drown more than kids in suburban areas,” he says. “We all know it’s true, but it’s difficult to address. Unfortunately, water safety is something that is not very high on a lot of people’s list of things to teach their children in urban, minority communities.”
Take Kadarius Wagner. On a particularly warm day last May, the 13-year-old and a group of friends slipped into a closed YMCA pool in Oak Cliff, Texas, to cool off. Wagner didn’t know how to swim and got stuck in the deep end. He became another black drowning statistic.
But it doesn’t just happen to children who sneak into pools. Public pools and waterparks pose a danger to minorities at all times.
“One of my fears has always been with the water slides,” says Sue Nelson, aquatics program specialist at USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body. “How many children go on those and don’t know how to recover in the heaviness of the water? And many people don’t even know how to walk in the wave pools without being knocked down by the current. That again goes back to learning to swim.”
Indeed, inexperienced swimmers strain the already tight resources at many public pools and waterparks, which sometimes beef up their staffs during visits by large numbers of minorities.
“Some waterparks in this area hire more lifeguards when they know that minority groups from the inner-city schools are coming in,” says Ito of Chicago State University. “They understand that these kids can’t swim, so they train their staffs on what to watch out for and where to look. This is counter-intuitive. We need to act preventively.
We need to make it a priority to teach kids this skill.”
A variety of historical and cultural issues surround minorities and swimming, extending all the way back to slavery days.
At that time, slave owners kept blacks from learning to swim to prevent them from escaping. In addition, some groups used water as a torture device, drowning blacks and Native Americans as punishment for poor behavior. During the Civil Rights Era, Jim Crow laws kept many blacks out of public swimming pools.
One of the most unshakable remnants of that history is the myth that black people simply can’t swim. To this day, parents in some communities still buy into the belief. This incongruous notion is based on a 1969 study called “The Negro and Learning to Swim.” It concluded that blacks were biologically less buoyant than whites because of higher density in their bones and body mass.
Even some individuals in the aquatics industry continue to give this theory credence, despite dozens of studies since then that prove the premise false. Most coaches, however, laugh at the thought, saying it’s a study that needs to be discredited in the public dialogue.
“It’s a common stereotype among black people,” says Lee Pitts, founder of the Lee Pitts Swim School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “So many people buy into that myth. The reality is that swimming ability has absolutely nothing to do with biological or anatomical differences between the racial groups.
“Blacks are more muscular people as adults,” continues Pitt, who is black and the creator of one of the only instructional swim videos by a minority teacher for minority kids. “That doesn’t mean that blacks can’t learn to swim well. We need to start dismissing these stereotypes and give them no credence so they can slowly erode.”
Still, other issues are more reality than fiction. For many black women, more than three-fourths of whom say they are nonswimmers, hair care is one of the issues that keeps them out of the water. Some white swim instructors don’t realize the time and money black women spend to maintain their hair. Chemically treated water tends to undo styles quickly, and causes frizziness and other problems.
“It can help to acknowledge the hair issue,” says Christine M. Branche, Ph.D., director of the Unintentional Injury Prevention Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
“Maybe it’s time to adopt a different hairstyle, a ‘lower’ maintenance hairstyle like braids or corn rows,” says Branche, who is black.
“Keep in mind, you still have to acknowledge that’s not ‘low’ maintenance, but it is ‘lower’ maintenance.”
But even if industry professionals can convince minority children and their families that swimming is a valuable skill, it won’t mean anything unless there’s a place for them to learn.
The fact is, for most disadvantaged (that is, minority) swimmers, clubs and schools are out of financial reach, with some rates starting at $50 a month. Public school systems, too, have turned their backs on swimming. Physical education budgets nationwide are being slashed by up to half, and aquatics programs often are the first casualties.
Meanwhile, public pools — the only viable option for swim lessons — are at a crossroads. As city budgets shrink, many outdated pools are being replaced with either splash parks that cost a fraction to maintain or by revenue-generating waterparks.
What’s more, transportation often is one of the biggest hindrances to getting minority kids into swimming. “Some of these kids who would give absolutely anything to be on a swim team just can’t get to the practice,” says Kathy Baldwin, executive director of The Gift of Swimming Inc. in Gotha, Fla., a nonprofit organization that provides swimming scholarships to disadvantaged children. “They don’t have an adult who can get them to every lesson, and you can’t teach someone to swim if they only show up one time a week.”
Unfortunately, missing out on swimming closes a multitude of doors for minorities that whites take for granted. At Chicago State University, for instance, would-be P.E. teachers must know how to swim, and many black students can’t, which forces them out of the profession. In the 1980s and early ’90s, too, Army recruiters had a hard time getting blacks into the Special Forces because large numbers failed their swimming drills.
“There are so many careers that will forever be closed if you don’t learn that skill,” says Alison Terry, a biracial competitive swimmer and ocean lifeguard for the San Diego Lifeguard Service. “From being a swim or diving coach to managing an aquatics facility, being in the Navy, being a lifeguard or a marine biologist, or even learning to scuba dive, there are all these healthy opportunities that are being missed.”
Lacking role models
The injuries caused by missing these opportunities can affect an entire generation.
The only way to combat this phenomenon is to find a black athlete or role model who can relate to today’s youth, experts say. Yet the sport lacks such individuals. Everyone is asking the same question: Where is the Michael Jordan of swimming?
“We need heroes who can inspire kids,” says Bruce Wigo, CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Why has it become so uncool to go into swimming, especially when it offers so many opportunities? It’s tragic.”
It’s not that there aren’t options. NBA superstar Tim Duncan was a competitive swimmer as a teenager and continues to swim today. And singer/songwriter Sean Paul participates in national swimming and water polo competitions for his native Jamaica. But these luminaries don’t talk about their swimming, and nobody in the aquatics community has tried to tap them.
“I would like to be able to reach out to Tim Duncan,” Wigo says. “If we, as an organization, can get someone like him, I think we can generate that interest. I want people who can bring relevancy and focus to our organization and get the message out that swimming is fun.”
That attitude, however, simply doesn’t exist in the pop culture mind-set — at least, not in America.
“If you’re an African-American male, and you’re a good athlete trying to decide what sport to play, you can turn on TV and see basketball, football and maybe baseball,” says Lee Willing, assistant head coach of the Lone Star Aquatic Club in Austin, Texas. “The only time you’ll see swimming is on ESPN 2 at 3 a.m., and the only time you’ll see African-Americans in swimming is if you’re looking for it.”
Willing has conducted research on recruiting minorities to the sport. By comparing data on minority swimmers from USA Swimming to statistics from the NCAA, he found that minority males were staying in the sport at a higher rate than white males.
“We’re retaining them at a higher level, but we’re not getting in at a higher level,” he says. “If I tell kids about how great swimming is, they will want proof. I’m just a middle-aged white guy. I’m not their proof.”
Some believe Hollywood may help launch swimming into the mainstream. “PDR,” a film currently in production, tells the true story of Jim Ellis, the head coach of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation swim team. Ellis, who will be played by Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard, was able to attract young, black swimmers to the sport, and by the early 1990s, Ellis’ team was nearly 100 percent black and winning meets. It is hoped the film’s inspirational story line will attract more people of color to swimming.
Searching for answers
The bottom line, however, is that more must be done. So far, success has only been achieved at local levels, and many experts say a national group must step up.
But which group? And when?
Despite propagating a number of minority-related initiatives, representatives from the American Red Cross and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America say it is not part of their mandates to target specific minority groups.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Lifesaving Association and the American Swimming Coaches Association view themselves as ancillary to the aquatics industry. And the International Swimming Hall of Fame does not have the resources to “be everything to everyone,” says CEO Wigo.
What’s left is the sport’s national body, USA Swimming, which is currently revitalizing its outreach program.
“When we first started outreach, we felt that it was such an ultrawhite sport that it would be good to include more minorities and access a huge talent base that’s being missed right now,” says Donald Walker, director of the Alamo Area Aquatic Association, a USA Swimming club in San Antonio.
At a meeting in June 2005, a special task force established a new diversity vision. This past April, they hired John Cruzat, a diversity specialist who is charged with rethinking past unsuccessful outreach efforts.
“Our first step is diagnostics,” says Cruzat, who is black. “We’re trying to find out what’s happening out there in terms of programming, what models currently exist, who are the players in the field, and then try to find creative ways to assist them in those efforts.”
Cruzat says USA Swimming plans to raise funds to sponsor minority athletes, help develop inner-city swim programming and train facility management to improve their cultural competency. “It’s going to be like tennis and golf: You’re going to see some breakthrough athletes and then you’ll see movement to the sport in communities,” he says.
Walking the talk
Critics say that for this to happen, the USA Swimming board itself has to change. “The people who run swimming are ‘old school,’” says a source familiar with USA Swimming Outreach, who prefers to remain anonymous. “This is what I’ve heard behind closed doors. It’s struggling to break out of this country club, exclusive mentality and become an equal-opportunity sport. It needs to start at the top, not at the bottom.”
That means people of color need to be in leadership positions. “People [are] frustrated,” the individual says. “They want someone of color put on the USA Swimming board. That’s when you know an organization is serious about its intentions.”
Cruzat promises that minority representation at the leadership level is one of his first objectives. “This organization has been talking for a long time,” he says. “Now they’re starting to mobilize, and hopefully I will be able to help them do that.”
Yet many say that USA Swimming’s leadership is only part of the solution. Truly addressing the issue will take a combination of national guidance and local cooperation.
“I think it needs to come from the top down and also from grass roots,” says lifeguard Terry, who serves on the Outreach task force. “The seeds are being planted. When those start being watered and have the opportunity to grow, we’ll see the fruits develop. It’s going to take time and a collective effort, but it will happen.”