For a lot of black people living in the United States, answers to not knowing how to swim can possibly be found by looking back into history. When the United States experienced a boom in swimming, which was accompanied by the constructions of several municipal pools across the country, blacks were systematically denied access to pools and thus, were unable to learn how to swim. Further, when pools were desegregated and blacks had access to them, white flight followed, as many whites who could, abandoned the desegregated public pools for pools in clubs they were assured would not be used by blacks. Extreme measures were employed to ensure that some pools remained desegregated, and there is the famous picture of James Brock, manager of the Monson Motel Lodge pouring muriatic acid into a pool in St. Augustine, Florida in an effort to get out black swimmers who had jumped in as part of anti-segregation efforts staged by Dr. Martin Luther King.
While pouring acid into a pool seems like an extreme reaction to getting black swimmers, there were even other shocking reactions like a pool manager at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas draining out an entire pool after the singer Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toe into the water in defiance of the white only swimming policy that the hotel had. So, for many blacks, the idea of swimming was a far removed reality because of racial opposition and the question of access. Also, it is important to consider that most pools were located in predominantly white and often affluent neighborhoods, so the questions of access was even more compounded by that of economics as well. So, the knowledge of swimming was not one that could be passed down as parents who did not know how to swim were not able to teach their children. Further, even when municipal pools were then built in black neighborhoods, they were mostly shallow and often only suitable for wading.
Thus, it is no surprise that Simone Manuel's win at the Olympics was greeted with tremendous applause in the black community because for many years, access to pools had been denied to blacks and that a black woman would triumph in a typically white only sport was a huge feat. But economics and access aside, another barrier to swimming particularly for black women has been our hair. At least for me, as I became an adult, that was the hurdle I faced, what to do with my hair, which often had extensions sewn in. Given that my formative years were not spent in the United States, I did not face the historical challenges to swimming that most blacks in America face, however, I did not learn how to swim because swimming wasn't something my parents prioritized. However, as I grew older and moved to the United States and lived in a neighborhood with a large pool, I didn't think it was something I needed to learn until my sophomore year in college.
My sophomore year in college was significant because of my lab partner in my physics class who was a black female. I remember her telling me how she had to hurry through lab on a particular day because she was leaving on a trip to go scuba diving with her family. My eyes bulged when she said so and at once, she wasn't a black female standing before me, but rather, an alien of sorts. A black family going scuba diving? I think that was where the bug bit me and for years, all I could think of was learning how to swim, just so I could scuba dive. I talked about it for so many years and did nothing about it until I moved to London.
I remember walking back to my apartment one day from work and going past these old Roman like baths that had now been converted to pools that were owned by an athletic club. I decided to walk in and lo and behold, they had swimming lessons that only cost twenty quids a month! Imagine that! But shortly before I moved to London, I lived in Houston and I had gone to the YMCA to enquire about lessons and was shocked by the price. It was a worthy investment for sure, but I was traveling a lot and couldn't make time for lessons so I had pictures of Ryan Lochte on my bathroom mirror, and all over my closet. Asides from the fact that Lochte is something of a douche bag, he is undeniably handsome and the visual was the perfect encouragement for me.
So I began swimming lessons in London and owing to serendipity, there was a scuba diving club that met once a week at the pool and I somewhat joined the club, but before I could be allowed to go on a practice dive I had to be able to swim, so back to lessons I went. My first instructor was the lady who came in with the Cartier bracelet on. Now, given that I hadn't taken lessons before, I was shocked that she didn't get into the pool, but rather stood at the edge calling out instructions. I only spent one class with her before I was assigned to the Greek god. He was a great instructor but he was more interested in chatting with me and was enthralled by my Americaness. I enjoyed being in his class, but felt I wasn't making the progress I wanted and so I asked to be moved. Then I was assigned to the Brazilian and he was fantastic. I made great progress and even surprised myself with the things I could do. The Greek god and Brazilian didn't get into the pool either, but by then, I had learned that this was just how things were.
My swimming lessons got my all. But like I mentioned, my hair stood in the way and I would always have to return home, shampoo my hair and then spend at least three hours post swimming to blow dry and press my hair as I had to be back at work the next day. Sometimes, I would be up until 2am blow drying and pressing my hair but I didn't care, all I wanted was to become a scuba diver and oh, learn how to swim. I didn't want to be a statistic or the poster child for swimming accidents, like that in Shreveport, Louisiana, where six teens, three of whom were siblings died trying to rescue another their brother who almost drowned as their mother looked on in horror. I want to be the mom, who teaches her children to swim because I can, since I'm a certified scuba diver. So in the meantime, whilst I search for a new instructor, I think you should too, if you know that you cannot swim and don't have a valid excuse as to why you do not.