Karen and Percy Norman are the swim mom and dad of Clarke (10) and Madison (13). Both girls swim year round and began swimming competitively at the age of 6. Karen sat down with Black Kids Swim to share her thoughts on the barriers that discourage African Americans from swimming and her hopes for her daughters.
BKS: What led you to encourage your daughters to swim?
KN: My mother cannot swim. Her cousin drowned as a teenager. Because of that, my mother made sure that all of her children learned how to swim. So, for us, swimming started as a safety issue. I made sure both of my daughters knew how to swim. Later, a friend of my oldest daughter introduced her to swimming as a sport and she loved it! It was a natural progression for our youngest daughter to follow her footsteps.
BKS: What is your reaction to the statistic: 70% of African American children cannot swim?
KN: That’s an alarming statistic. I didn’t think it was that high. I see the disparity at swim meets, but I didn’t know the numbers were that bad. That is really shocking. I do think it is getting better, because I see more African American children participating in the sport now than in the past.
BKS: What do you see as one of the biggest reasons African Americans avoid swimming as a sport?
KN: There are many barriers. Hair care is a huge one. And as a community we have to help our friends and family find ways to solve hair as an issue. And although swimming can be expensive, maintaining healthy hair is not a high cost activity. Today, natural hair is en vogue. Getting a perm is not the only way to wear our hair. There are many more options beyond straight hair. In our family, we have found natural hair products and styles that we like. We make it a point to compliment our girls on their natural styles. In general, we de-emphasize hair and other external forms of beauty.
BKS: That is an amazing parenting lesson! With so many girls struggling with eating disorders and self esteem issues, your emphasis on inner beauty is wonderful!
KN: We emphasize health of body and health of hair. Who they are is more important than how they look.
BKS: Do you have any hair advice for other swim moms? What hair routine do your girls use?
KN: My daughters swim three to six times per week. We wash their hair with shampoo and always use both a conditioner and a leave in conditioner. The leave in conditioner is key. We’ve tried just about every product on the market! We tend to favor products with shea butter. Now, we are using It’s Yours Hair Co. and Mixed Chicks. My oldest daughter typically wears her hair in a pony tail and our youngest daughter tries a variety of styles including individual braids, cornrows and twists.
BKS: Are there any other barriers that keep African Americans from swimming competitively?
KN: I’m not sure if its institutional, cultural, a belief in negative stereotypes, myths or just fear. But there is something keeping our community from swimming in larger numbers. Many of us need to overcome our fear of the water. One of my relatives was afraid my daughters would get sick if they went outside in winter weather after swim practice! I just promised to make them wear a hat and coat. We all have concerns but those concerns can be addressed and overcome.
BKS: What do you want your daughters to take away from swimming?
KN: Lifelong health. Hopefully they will swim throughout high school and possibly through college as well – if they continue to enjoy it. They are learning self dedication and motivation. For example, our oldest daughter swims six days a week. One of those days she wakes herself up at 4AM to complete a gym workout that begins at 5AM. Her dedication is amazing and we encourage that.
BKS: What impact has swimming had on your daughter’s lives?
KN: Participation in swimming requires them to manage their time – and this is a skill transferrable to academics. They use their free time for homework – even on the bus ride home from school. And when they get home they get right to work on school assignments. They know they don’t have time to waste. They realize that every minute counts. They still require parental support – but they are growing into independent young women.
BKS: What advice do you have for parents still considering the sport of swimming for their children?
KN: Safety is necessary and every child should learn how to swim. The sport of competitive swimming offers a range of beneficial life skills for our children; discipline, time management, team work – so many skills that can serve their children well.
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