Clearing the Deck: Simone Manuel and Black Swimming

Simone Manuel is a leader in the first generation of African-Americans swimmers to make systemic waves in the sport. What took so long?
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Simone Manuel was squinting when she came up. “Yeah, I don’t have my glasses on, so I really couldn’t see the time,” she told ESPN’s Cynthia Potter, nearly breathless yet full of control. “When I did, I was pretty shocked and excited.”

I was squinting and shocked and excited when she came up, too. Because of my wispy, just-about-every-four-years commitment to watching swimming, I didn’t recognize her. I could only see what was directly in front of me: She was a swimmer for Stanford, she was black, and she had just won the 50 and 100 freestyle events, setting a new American record in the latter (46.09). It was her record before Abbey Weitzeil — another absurdly talented high-school prodigy from Southern California — nabbed it in 2014.

Manuel’s definitive showing at March’s NCAA Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships served as a flag-in-the-ground moment not only to teammates and competitors, but also to the world watching, or at least the world that might have or will eventually be watching. There were other records set and performances that shone that afternoon; both Missy Franklin and Kelsi Worrell broke their own American records, in the 200 free and 100 butterfly, respectively. But Manuel’s resounded more loudly, because, to me, she was new.

Yet, impressive as it was, Manuel’s record was also the catalyst for an even more remarkable moment. Right behind her in the 100 free, in second and third place, were her Stanford teammate Lia Neal and Florida’s Natalie Hinds — both of whom, like Manuel, are black. For the first time in the history of collegiate swimming, three African American swimmers swept the podium. Ex-US swimmer Maritza McClendon (formerly Maritza Correia), a Puerto Rican of African descent, wrote afterwards: “My jaw dropped and a tear instantly came to my eyes, I couldn’t believe it.

“This is a true moment in history for minorities.”

Which demands a follow-up question: What took so long?

***

If this is the first you’ve heard of Simone Manuel, that’s okay. Judging by the 18-year-old’s modest number of Twitter followers — 2,119, as of this writing  — most everyone else doesn’t know who she is, either. But that should change very soon. The Summer Olympics in Rio are just over a year away, while the World Championships are taking place right now in Kazan, Russia (Women’s 100 free qualifiers begin Thursday, followed by 50 free Saturday). Whether or not the Missy Franklin or Katie Ledecky locomotives allow her to merge into the lane of superstardom, Manuel will be on your TV. Her road is that clear and she is that good.

Of course, Manuel will not be the first notable African American swimmer to create ripples.

Correia became the first black woman to represent the USA at Athens 2004 — winning a silver medal that year in the 400 free relay — as well as the first black woman to break an American and world swimming record (50 free). Anthony Ervin was the first-ever African American to make the US Olympic Swim team, and the first to take home gold when he shared the top of the podium with Gary Hall Jr. in the 50 free in Sydney 2000. Cullen Jones was a member of the USA’s 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams; you probably recognize him as the third leg of the 400 free relay team that did this in Beijing.

So, yes, Simone Manuel has influential antecedents. But there are comparably few of them and so it’s easy to feel like she, not they, represents the incipient stages of actual change within the sport. Broadly speaking, African Americans and swimming have been linked in popular American culture under the quasi-belief that they’re not really linked at all.

Even without the presence of a transcendent black swimming superstar, there’s long been a discussion over the monochromatic, or non-black, shade of swimming in America.

This talk took a strange and ugly veer in June when footage leaked of a McKinney, Texas police officer named Eric Casebolt abusively arresting a group of black teenagers and children outside of an end-of-the-school-year community pool party. The police department claims that the cops had shown up at the pool in response to a disturbance “involving multiple juveniles at the location, who do not live in the area or have permission to be there, refusing to leave.” The most searing images of the film involve Casebolt inexplicably pulling his gun out and dragging a 14-year-old black girl to the ground as she yelled for her mother. Casebolt has resigned from his position in the wake of the controversy. Yes, all of this happened in 2015.

Although Manuel is originally from Sugar Land, Texas — just 300 miles south of McKinney — her fate has been less cruel than those other kids.’ Over the span of our country’s swimming history, however, Manuel’s case still remains considerably rare.

***

There’s a BBC article from 2010 titled “Why don’t black Americans swim?” that discusses the many hypothesized reasons, unspecifically, that we haven’t seen more Manuels and Joneses and Correias pop up over the years. These range from offensively stupid (black people are less buoyant than white people) to painfully obvious (slaves not being taught or permitted to swim). There’s overused yet still startling statistics that always accompany pieces like this.

Most popularly, the CDC findings that reveal black American children drown triply as often as white American children, and 70% don’t know how to swim. The BBC piece alleges that one of the main reasons African American kids don’t learn to swim is because of a fear that their parents pass onto them. Professor Carol Irwin, a sociologist from the University of Memphis who fronted the study, passes on a common sentiment in the article that she repeatedly discovered during her research: “My children are never going to learn to swim because I’m scared they would drown.” Long before anyone discovered her transcendent talent, Simone Manuel was an outlier, here, too; water safety was one of the main reasons her parents first placed her in swimming classes when she was four-years-old.

But there’s absolutely a deeper and more factual slit to this topic, one that divulges the larger socioeconomic hindrances that have resulted in swimming being guarded from blacks and other minorities over the years, and why it’s so often regarded as an elitist, white sport. It appropriately has much to do with the history of swimming pools. Environmentalist Brentin Mock has even referred to the swimming pool as one of America’s “most racist institutions.” It’s hard to watch oppressive scenes like the ones in McKinney and disagree with that sentiment.

The deep cut I’m referring to here is a break-of-course that can be traced back to two specific spikes in swimming rates in America: the 1920-30’s and the 1950-60’s. Historian Jeff Wiltse covers this in his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, a canonical book on the subject.

The first spike came during a time when thousands of new pools were being constructed across the US, turning swimming into a new recreational craze. Due to the nation’s segregation laws of the time, blacks were often kept from partaking (Wiltse also believes that gender integration was sometimes a direct cause for racial segregation in Northern states). The second spike, however, came at a time when segregation laws were being lifted throughout the US. Despite this surface positive, the lingering clutch of racism was still viably potent. In centrally-located pools, public officials raised admission prices to keep the poor away. Additionally, whites began ditching public pools in favor of private establishments in which their bigoted tendencies could still breathe. As a result, municipal pools began going the way of the drive-in movie theatre.

There’s an important distinction to make here: while it’s widely asserted that swimming, as most of us know it, hasn’t “caught on” in the African American community, that shouldn’t result in the conclusion that African Americans “don’t swim.” Such an idea would blatantly ignore the past. Tetsuhiko Endo of The Inertia writes in his 2012 article called “Debunking the Stereotype that Blacks don’t Surf or Swim” that “American Blacks have a long and well-documented history of loving to swim.”

As Endo rightly claims in his piece, African American ties to the water are real, if merely strained, due to years of barricading. He writes about how Frederick Douglass’ son Charles and his wife, Laura, started a black oceanside resort in Maryland in 1893 due to being barred from a nearby beach. (Still open today, the retreat has served as a guest-spot for many prominent black figures over the years such as W.E.B. Dubois, Alex Haley, Langston Hughes, and Paul Laurence Dunbar.) This was a time when countless Blacks were looking towards coastal living as a potential reprieve from discrimination, only to find it just as abhorrent there.

Endo further concludes: “Of the many obstacles Black swimming culture still faces, perhaps the most daunting, is the very notion that is does not exist: that a Black person enjoying the water is anomalous, that surfing and swimming, and all water-based activities are somehow written into the genetic code of Caucasians and omitted from that of Blacks.”

These are institutional robberies we’re talking about here, not cultural quirks. To be pushed out of an area — say, one with a community pool — and then probed on why you haven’t supremely developed traditions indicative of that area seems backwards. The venture here is much less about blacks finding water and more about blacks finding a way back to water. Not an easy thing to do with hundreds of years of discriminatory laws and poisonous cultural values standing in your way.

***

This admittedly obscure charge of bringing more African Americans to the pool is as much about universal accessibility as it is racial equality, both of these things being intrinsically linked. Like Cullen Jones with the Make a Splash project — which is dedicated to educating people, most specifically minorities, on the importance of water safety — many have helped to spearhead the effort to bring swimming to everyone who wants it.

Sabir Muhammed, who was the first black swimmer to ever break an American record (in the 50 and 100 free), first learned his trade at the City of Atlanta Dolphins Swim Team, where the staff is predominantly comprised of black coaches. Muhammed has now opened his own swim school in Atlanta.

Even more impactful has been the work of Jim Ellis, a school teacher who has dedicated his life to teaching and developing elite black swimmers in Philadelphia’s inner city. Though he has yet to produce an Olympian — he recognizes that as one of his chief goals — many of his swimmers have been nationally ranked over the years. If Ellis’s story sounds even remotely familiar, it’s because it was fictionalized in the 2007 Terrence Howard film Pride. When asked by Philly.com about the film’s portrayal of his story, Ellis proclaimed, “What I see is a chance to bring our story to a lot of non-swimmers — that Afro Americans can swim.”

Maybe the first step towards confronting this issue lies in Ellis’s story: a (not-so)simple commitment to making swimming pools and likewise establishments welcome to ALL people. In 2010, Ellis opened a $10 million swimming facility at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Philadelphia to continue his efforts. If there’s a succinct ethos the 57-year-old instructor lives by, he revealed it in a 2012 interview with USA Swimming: “We want to provide a positive experience for anyone that wants to swim.”

For years, and obviously still today as illustrated by McKinney, pockets of Americans have been cheated out of enjoying swimming as a recreational activity. It’s instead been passed on from early century American whites all the way onto new millennial American whites with no stops in between. The African American history is laid with a few more speedbumps. There’s a significant journey there. Thankfully, because of people like Jim Ellis, we now have a gem like Simone Manuel to celebrate. On some level, Manuel’s emergence could be used as evidence that our country has begun to move away from its disgraceful past. However, one shot of that maniacal man of authority in Texas lassoing a group of black children as if they’re disobedient livestock gobsmacks you back into reality.

There’s obviously much education required to decidedly alter what swimming, as a sport, will look like in the future. USA Swimming, from where most American Olympics aspirants sprout, reported in 2005 that only 0.87 percent of its participants were African American. When considering the storied and prolific history of black athletes in America, this statistic feels rightly ludicrous. Sharron Manuel, Simone’s mother, disclosed in a feature for Reach For the Wall that after being asked by her daughter why nobody at the pool looked like her, she scoured the internet for all articles on black swimming history to share with her: “I think it was really helpful for her because it enlightened her that the reason a lot of blacks haven’t been involved in swimming was that in the past we didn’t have access to the facilities.”

“It wasn’t something where we didn’t have the physical ability to do it. It was access and exposure.”

It stands to logic that once generations upon generations of citizens have unrestrained access to a resource, without being told to KEEP OUT, more than likely, they’ll begin to maximize its value. Simone Manuel has.

Ask yourself this simple question: Why do white people love swimming? It’s probably the same reason black people love swimming. Because everyone loves swimming. There’s more Simone Manuels out there. When the fear and lack of access bleeds away, we should be able to recognize them without squinting.


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