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African-American Swimmers

Diversity in Swimming does not exist. That’s not my opinion, that is an observable fact.

Juan Caraveo called the 2016 US Olympic swim team “the most diverse yet”. Caraveo is a sports diversity and inclusion consultant for USA Swimming. However, out of 47 swimmers, only 3 identified as African American. Simone Manuel, Lia Neal and Anthony Ervin.

Unfortunately, 3 out of 47 isn’t bad for USA Swimming. The organizing body for the sport supports more than 354,627 swimmers. Yet, only 1.3% of their membership identifies as African American. 

The numbers for collegiate swimming are worse.

According to NCAA demographic database, in the 2017-2018 school year there were 22,501 swimmers- across all divisions and conferences. Notably, only 1.6% identified as African American, while 76% identified as White.  African Americans are barely present in collegiate swimming; not as swimmers or coaches. Currently, Howard University is the only HBCU with a swim team. 

As aquatics professionals, we have a responsibility to increase diversity in swimming.

The low levels of Black participation in the sport of competitive swimming can be attributed to several key factors. Historic exclusion of Black people from safe spaces to swim (the root cause of fear and lack of swim skills noticeable today); absence of swimming facilities in predominantly Black neighborhoods; and behavior on the part of swim coaches, swim parents, and aquatics professionals that ranges from rude to hostile.

The final factor can and must be addressed if leaders in the sport truly want to see a change. While USA Swimming does promote anti-bullying policies, the amount of calls and emails we receive on this topic causes us to question the policies’ effectiveness. 

As the Executive Director of Black Kids Swim, I receive calls and emails every day from parents of age group and collegiate swimmers.

The stories have literally brought me to tears. From a 10 year old diver scratched by teenage girls during  practice, to collegiate coaches who have actively discouraged young recruits from joining their team. The desire to maintain swimming as a white dominated sport is clear.

A top request from the parents who reach out to us is “can you recommend a Black swim team in our area?” They are searching for a safe space where their child can develop into a proficient swimmer and have fun. They are running away from hostile environments towards something that unfortunately, in many cities, does not exist. 

The vast majority of age group swimmers will never swim in college or the Olympics. They swim because they enjoy spending time with their teammates. Children who are excluded socially or physically harmed by their teammates and ignored by their coach – are not going to remain in that environment. As swim professionals, we have to do everything we can to ensure our kids are able to enjoy the swim team (or swim class) experience.

This year, Black Kids Swim launched a survey to better understand what we can do to make aquatics classes and competitive swim experiences more welcoming to Black families (Black Kids Swim Survey: Improving the Competitive Swim Experience for Black Swimmers, 2019). Preliminary results indicate that a more diverse or welcoming environment will improve the experience.

Let’s work together to change the culture and increase diversity in swimming.

For swim teams and aquatics facilities serious about diversifying their program, we have compiled a short list of actions:

  1. Hire Black coaches and instructors. (If locating instructors is challenging, please contact us)
  2. Provide cultural sensitivity training for your staff and volunteers.
  3. Identify a trusted ambassador and, in partnership with them, reach out to the African American community.

For more strategies on diversity in swimming programs, contact info@blackkidsswim.com

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