Into his late twenties, my South African husband would refuse to venture more than knee-deep into the waves at the shore, and he’d stick anxiously to the shallow end of every pool. He had never learned to swim. Early in our courtship, he always said swimming was for white people, and I laughed and said of course that’s not true.
My husband called me a squid in front of about 20 people, but since we were stepping into the pool in the basement of Chestnut Hill College together, I knew he meant it as a compliment.
Into his late twenties, my South African husband would refuse to venture more than knee-deep into the waves at the shore, and he’d stick anxiously to the shallow end of every pool. He had never learned to swim. But every time my graceful kicks and confident dives would rocket me happily into the deep end, I could never seem to give the advice he craved.
Like a duck to … you know
I think it’s because I learned how to swim so long ago that I have no memories of it — no mental or physical template for how to build the skills to float, to kick, to tread and stroke. My mom began taking me into pools shortly after I was born, and claims that I could swim before I could walk, so it’s no wonder I don’t remember my first dog-paddle.
It also helps that my otherwise unremarkable body floats like a mallard tied to a balloon. If I’m ever on a sinking boat, I’ll throw my life jacket to anyone else and jump overboard. In a pool, I can hang with my nose above water, like some kind of vertical lily-white alligator. In the salty ocean, I can put my hands behind my head, cross my ankles like I’m in a lounge chair, and just ride the swells with my face to the sun.
When my family took our annual Brigantine beach vacations (just north of Atlantic City), I noticed that not only was my husband one of the only grown-ups confined to the shallows — he was also one of the only black people on the whole beach.
Swimming no longer ‘for white people’
Early in our courtship, he always said swimming was for white people, and I laughed and said of course that’s not true. But I thought back over my summers at the local swimming pool, and how almost all the other kids where white, even though we lived in a region that was predominantly black.
In recent years, I’ve been happy to see Brigantine become more racially diverse. Maybe that helped my husband strap a sodden Velcro boogie-board bracelet to his wrist and hit the waves with me, and then teach his little sister how the next summer, although he would never join the rest of the family, chatting and wrestling in the deep water beyond the breakers.
This spring, he took the biggest stroke of all. He didn’t want to be stuck in the shallows anymore, and since I couldn’t impart my water abilities to him, he signed up for an adults’ swim class through Mt. Airy Learning Tree, with a professional swimming teacher.
He worked hard in class for five weeks, and there he was, lined up at the lip of the deep end with the rest of his class during his last lesson, as he debated topping off the course by jumping into the deep end without a flotation belt.
There was one other white person in the pool — a fellow squid — the partner of another student. All of the students were black. Coincidence?
A cultural preference for the shallow end?
In 2010, the University of Memphis teamed with the USA Swimming foundation for a study conducted at YMCA facilities in several U.S. cities, which found that about 70 percent of African-American children and almost 60 percent of Hispanic/Latino children surveyed weren’t strong swimmers, while less than half of Caucasian kids said the same. Fourteen percent of black or African-American kids in the study couldn’t swim at all, versus only seven percent of Hispanic/Latino children and six percent of Caucasian kids. Most troubling of all, USA Swimming reports that African-American children drown at a rate almost three times higher than Caucasian children do.
The study found that the reasons for this have less to do with income disparities than you might think — i.e., white children from wealthier households and neighborhoods having easier access to recreation in the water.
Surveys of families from many backgrounds, along with controls for income level and families’ attitude toward the cost or accessibility of pool memberships or swimming lessons, indicated that the reasons for these disparities in swimming ability have more to do with different cultural attitudes about the safety of swimming and who can enjoy it.
The study quotes an African-American parent from the Boston area affirming that barriers (whether practical or financial) to pools aren’t the problem: “I still think it’s culture and what you see on TV. You see a lot more Caucasian kids or adults loving the beach, loving the water…Being fish-like,” the respondent said of the entrenched perceptions, including media images, which affect families of color and make them hesitant to put their kids in swimming classes or programs.
Overcoming a lifetime away from the water
If Olympic swimmers like Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps donned all their medals, even they would probably sink to the bottom, and in those famous races, almost all of the aquatic stars are white. No wonder my husband insisted swimming is a white people’s sport.
So maybe my squid side isn’t so innate after all. I grew up with swimming as a beloved family activity, and people who looked like me filled the beach, the pool, and the Olympic lap lanes. But my husband and his brave classmates, splashing one by one into the deep end and paddling to the surface with their teacher (herself African-American) cheering alongside them proved that even if you’ve had a lifelong fear of the water, it’s never too late to overcome it.
Swimming, especially if you’re responsible for little ones near the water, isn’t just a vital life skill that no-one should be afraid or ashamed to practice with proper support. It’s a source of lifelong fitness, relaxation, and fun that everybody should be able to enjoy.
So, tentacles swirling, I was proud to watch my husband toss his flotation belt on the tiles, jump into the pool, and surge to the surface all on his own. For the first time, we swam freestyle side by side for the whole length of the pool.
It wasn’t just thrilled to know my spouse will be safe in the water from now on, and that our future kids will be safe with him at pools and piers. Thanks to my husband’s courage and determination to learn, after almost twelve years as a couple, we have the joy of doing something new together.
And there’s one more black man in the pool, proving that the water is for everyone.