By Terrie Albano
Swimming is often considered a solo sport. Stars like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel are stars because of their individual achievements. But it’s also about team. Swimmers are connected to a basic life necessity – water. Before a race, my coach says, “Swim in your own lane.” This blog, Swimming Social, is about swimming in your own lane but realizing we all swim in the same pool.
For example, during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, civil rights activists organized to desegregate public swimming pools and beaches (and not just in the South). I knew this because I am honored to have met some of those drum majors for justice.
After I had joined a U.S.Masters Swimming team in 2012, I became more aware of how swimming and social issues coincide. I remembered a column, published at peoplesworld.org (where I work), written by a retired public school nurse about Cullen Jones, who in 2008 was only the second African American swimmer to win an Olympic Gold Medal. She wrote about the economic and racial barriers African Americans face in gaining access to pools.
She also wrote about the preventable tragedy of drowning, which take Black and Native children at much higher rates than their white peers.
Jones, who almost drowned when he was a child, helped initiate a program that does water safety outreach to families and communities of color, called Make a Splash. I started publicizing the program. Even learning to swim has social and political implications.
As I became more immersed in the sport, swimming became a conduit of activism. A change.org petition calling on Chicago City Colleges to re-open their pools came to my attention. It infuriated me that pools in the city I live in, which could be in use by working-class communities, languished. I circulated it among my teammates and they signed.
Then there were long-distance swimmers who used their abilities for the greater good. At 64-years-old, Diana Nyad swam from Cuba to Florida in 2013 and brought her message of teamwork and athletic achievement to an international audience. She was truly an inspiration to older women swimmers like me and even raised money for Hurricane Sandy survivors.
In 2014, marathon swimmer Lewis Pugh began a United Nations campaign to swim seven seas to call attention to pollution, overfishing, coastal development and climate change affecting the oceans.
Big River Man Martin Strel announced in 2015 that he would swim 10,000 miles around the world to publicize the devastating increase in water pollution and “for peace and love.”
Water pollution has jeopardized the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
One day, at a used bookstore, I spotted two fascinating books on swimming: Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America and Lynne Cox’s Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long Distance Swimmer. I grabbed them both and got a lesson in how class, race, gender, foreign affairs and environmental degradation swim in the same waters, often unseen, where millions of people splash daily.
In Contested Waters, among other issues, the author explores the roots of racially-segregated swimming pools and beaches. Those roots seemed to burst through the soil recently in McKinney, Texas, when a video of police using excessive force against a group of African American teenagers, including body-slamming one young bathing suit-clad woman to the ground, went viral. In the June 8, 2015 Atlantic, Yoni Appelbaum wrote about this incident within the context of the desegregation of municipal pools and the white flight to suburbia where segregated backyard and private club pools became the norm.
The social history of swimming pools is still being written. That’s why this blog exists.
After all, Michael Phelps doesn’t know everything about swimming.