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BHM Heroes: 7 Influential Black Swimmers You Should Know

BHM Heroes: 7 Influential Black Swimmers You Should Know

Black Kids Swim is proud to share the story of seven influential Black swimmers! Black History Month is a time for celebration and reflection. From past to present, our adversity and successes represent the strength of the Black American spirit. Our contributions in politics, entertainment, science and other avenues have made an impact throughout society. 

The competitive swimming world is no exception. In past decades and recent years, influential Black swimmers such as Chris Silva, Sybil Smith, and Cullen Jones have made their mark in the history books. But, many others should be celebrated and recognized in the sport. Here is our list of seven influential Black swimmers in the Black Kids Swim community you should know. Check them out below!

Enith Brigitha

Photo: Enith Brigitha/The Open University

Enith Brigitha is the first woman of African descent to win a swimming medal at the Olympics. Representing the Netherlands at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, she won bronze medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter freestyle. Her accomplishment was a significant feat during a period when Black people, especially Black women, rarely existed in the competitive swimming space.

Brigitha was born on Curacao’s island in the West Indies and used the Caribbean Sea as her training ground. She rose to prominence in the 1970s after moving to Holland. She collected 21 Dutch titles in the freestyle, backstroke medley and butterfly events in six years. She also won a silver medal in the 200-meter backstroke and a bronze medal in the 100-meter freestyle at the 1973 inaugural FINA World Championships. She received the Dutch Sportswomen of the Year honor twice in a row as well.

After retiring from competitive swimming, Brigitha decided to focus on her family. She moved back to Curacao where she married her husband and had three daughters. She opened a swim school offering swimming lessons to children. She and her family later returned to Holland when her daughters attended college. One of the most accomplished influential Black swimmers, she received her induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2015.

Charles Chapman

Photo: Charles/ChapmanDiversity in Aquatics

Charles Chapman achieved several firsts in open water swimming. Nicknamed “Charlie the Tuna,” the Buffalo, New York, native became the first Black swimmer to cross the English Channel in 1981. He swam 21 miles for 12 hours and 30 minutes to accomplish this feat. He won the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s Gold Medallion Award for his achievement. 

Chapman is also known for his swims around Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, California. He completed the 3.5-mile swim around Alcatraz in 1978 in 36 minutes. At the time, Chapman was the third person and first Black person to complete this swim. In 1983, he did a butterfly swim around Alcatraz and swam to Aquatic Park in San Francisco.  

As one of the most accomplished long-distance influential Black swimmers, he continued to break records in the 1980s. He received a world record in 1988 when he completed the first butterfly circumnavigating swim in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, finishing in 9 hours and 25 minutes. He competed in the same swim freestyle with a recorded time of 9 hours and 35 minutes.

Tice Davids

Photo: Illustration of Tice Davids/Songs About History

An enslaved man living in Kentucky, Tice Davids, swam across the Ohio River to escape to freedom in 1831. His owner was chasing close behind him before losing sight of him as he trekked further into the water.

The term, Underground Railroad, is alleged to have originated from Davids’ escape. Stories mention that his owner returned to Kentucky in anger and commented, “must have gone off on an underground road.”

Fortunately, Davids survived this treacherous journey. His story is an honest representation Black Americans and our African ancestors’ connection to the waters that divide us. The network of free Blacks and white supporters in the North helped an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 enslaved persons find their way toward freedom. 

Charles Jackson French

Photo: Charles Jackson/ Chicago Defender

Once named “Hero of the Year” by the Chicago Defender, Charles Jackson French’s story is triumphant from start to finish. French was an American war hero from Foreman, Arkansas, who enlisted in the Navy in 1937. During the height of World War II on September 5, 1942, the 22-year-old French swam in shark-infested waters carrying a raft of 25 wounded seamen from the USS Gregory after Japanese forces bombed the ship near Guadalcanal, located in the Solomon Islands.

The seamen were eventually rescued and brought to land after a six-hour journey through the treacherous waters. According to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, many were not aware of the swimmer’s identity until a Navy ensign notified a reporter from the Associated Press about the rescue. French’s notoriety as one of the nation’s most influential Black swimmers skyrocketed after his story made headlines. Calendars and a War Gun trading card plastered his image, along with multiple comic strips displaying his story. He utilized his prominence for speaking engagements promoting the sale of war bonds.

In May 1943, Adm. William F. Halsey, Jr. issued French a letter of recommendation for his act of heroism. However, survivors of the incident believed he should have received a higher honor, such as the Congressional Medal of Freedom for his service. French lived in San Diego after the war until his passing in 1956. His story is an essential component of naval and swimming history.

Natalie Hinds

Photo Credit: Natalie Hinds/Natalie Hinds

Natalie Hinds is a 20-time All-American competitive swimmer from Midland, Texas. She is best known for her 1-2-3 in a single event at the 2015 NCAA Championships alongside Simone Manuel and Lia Neal. 

Hinds acquired several titles during her time at the University of Florida. She was named the SEC Female Freshman of the Year after finishing in the top eight in all events and winning the title in the 100-yard butterfly. Additionally, she set a record in the 100-yard and 50-yard freestyle her sophomore year. She also received three individual All-American honors and three-relay All-American honors.

Hinds worked in media when she retired after the 2016 Olympic trials. She returned to the sport in 2018, and in that same year, she received titles in the 100-yard butterfly, 100-yard backstroke, 50 and 100-yard freestyle. In 2019, she became a member of the Cali Condors International Swim League.

Hinds continues to use her platform as one of a growing number of influential Black swimmers to raise awareness on issues regarding Black lives. She speaks about her own experiences in the predominately white swimming world to fight for more Black swimmers and foster dialogue on racial equality. She also launched a custom tapestry business, Loominary Design, last year.

Pauline Jackson

Photo: Santa Catalina Island, California, 1927. Paulina Jackson is number 36./The Catalina Islander

Pauline Jackson was a pioneering open water swimmer from New York. She launched a stable and successful professional swimming career in the early 20th century.

Jackson tried to swim The Catalina Channel in 1927, one of the most challenging marathons in the world. Swimming through the frigid waters of the Pacific hours on end proved her strong swimming capabilities. She also participated in the Canadian National Exhibition swims in the late 1920s, opening the door for another Black open water swimmer named Walter Johnson, who competed in the same exhibition in 1931.

Jackson was a true trailblazer when discrimination and Jim Crow negatively impacted Black Americans’ daily lives, especially for Black women.

Reece Whitley

Photo: Reece Whitley/University of California Athletics

Named 2015 SportsKid of the Year by Sports Illustrated Kids, Reece Whitley is definitely one of the brightest influential Black swimmers. Specializing in the breaststroke, the 6-foot, 8-inch competitive swimmer secured a silver medal in the 100-meter breaststroke at the 2015 FINA World Junior Swimming Championships.

Currently, a junior at the University of California, Whitley’s college career is on the fast track. The Philadelphia native was the Pac-12 Swimming Freshman of the Year and a nine-time CSCAA All-American recipient. As the team captain for Team USA at the 2017 FINA World Junior Championships, his primary goal is to be a part of Team USA’s 2021 Olympic team. Showcasing his skills at the 2019 Phillips 66 Championships, he won first place in the 200-meter and third place in the 100-meter breaststroke, proving himself to be a worthy contender.

Whitley believes he is in a privileged position to cultivate the current and next generation of Black swimmers. He is a proponent of having conversations around racial discrimination and equality in the swimming community and society.

Our history is essential to the competitive swimming space. As we reflect on this month of Black joy and resilience, let us not forget the individuals like these Black swimmers who have paved the way to make these journeys possible.