By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent | Wednesday, May 4, 2011A few weeks ago, I asked an African-American swim coach I was interviewing to scan the pool deck. The scene was at the Michigan Grand Prix. I asked him, “How many black swimmers do you see?” He looked from left to right, then right to left. And then he turned to me, without a surprised look on his face, “Not many.”
Awareness is half the issue. Awareness that there aren’t many black swimmers on our pool decks. Awareness that there are far fewer Hispanic kids on our pool decks. Can you even name one Hispanic swimmer on our National Team, current or from years before? Off the top of my head, I cannot.
I’ve received a lot of feedback from an interview with Jeff Commings. In the interview, Commings, a black swimmer, points out that he wasn’t even aware about the race issue until someone in the media pointed it out to him at the Olympic Festival. And then he discusses later how there was a lack of realization in the media when, at this year’s NCAA Championships, Brett Fraser and Dax Hill went 1-2 in the 200 freestyle, the first time two black swimmers finished atop of the podium in any U.S. Swimming Championship.
Since that interview, one reader emailed me about that lack of coverage/noticing, “And really, wasn't that MLK's dream? That I was so much more obsessed about [a friend’s performance] as an athlete that it never occurred to me to classify him by his race? Maybe the reason there's not too much commotion made about black athletes in swimming is because the viewing audience is small and the participants are already pretty progressive, having long ago moved past the faux political correctness of forced recognition.”
When I moved into a mostly-black neighborhood in Brooklyn, “diversity in swimming” was the last subject on my mind. To me, it was a non-issue. My best friend growing up on my swim team in high school was black. I never walked around the pool deck looking for different races. That would be somewhat ridiculous. I never pointed out to someone, “How many black swimmers do you see?” Like the reader said above, maybe we should concentrate on the performance of these athletes, rather than their race.
Isn’t that the point?
But as a collective membership of USA Swimming – whether you’re a coach, swimmer, or fan – I’m guessing you are (mostly) a white audience. And the observation that, demographically speaking, the number of minorities in swimming contrasts sharply to corresponding population percentage, it is an important issue to be made aware. Because there is a problem. There is a discrepancy.
Of course it was MLK’s dream to judge a person on the content of their character – or in this case, the speed at which he or she moves through the water. In swimming, there are no shades of gray. You either win, or you lose. But when you scan the pool decks, and you see a sport largely disproportionate with the current U.S. demographics, there’s a problem.
I’m not asking you, readers, to scan pool decks and point out every minority you see. But what I’m asking is that you are aware. Awareness is half the issue, because with widespread awareness (hopefully) comes change, and only with change will we see a country in which over 60% of African American kids that can’t swim finally learn.