By Nailah Ellis Timberlake//Communications Manager, Multicultural & Foundation | Wednesday, February 10, 2016
How did you start swimming?At about age three, I went to a family reunion and jumped into a lake without knowing how to swim. My dad had to dive in and save me. After that near drowning experience my parents decided to put me into swimming lessons.
Believe it or not, I learned to swim through the city of Atlanta Parks and Recreation program. The program was created by Askia Bashir, an African-American, and coached by Tommy Jackson, also African-American. That team is one of the oldest diverse swimming programs in the USA. I’m fortunate to have grown up on that team.
What was it like to learn to swim and be introduced to the sport by Askia Bashir and Tommy Jackson?
Askia Bashir is a great man with an incredible story. When he was a teenager, Askia saved a young boy who was drowning and was recognized by the City of Atlanta for his heroism. He started the City of Atlanta Dolphins Swim Team and gave me the opportunity to learn to swim and compete for one of the most diverse swim teams in the country. Tommy Jackson (pictured right, with Sabir) was my first age-group coach. He helped grow me into a great swimmer and instilled in me, life lessons and a spirit of hard work that I use to this day. Coach Tommy has coached hundreds of swimmers and changed many lives by helping many African-American kids receive swimming scholarships. He’s given his entire life to teach and inspire swimmers from diverse backgrounds through the power and importance of education and he works every day of his life teaching this to his students.
Why did you decide to attend Stanford?
It’s a great story! I was recruited to Stanford after a serendipitous meeting with my hero, Olympic Gold Medalist Pablo Morales. Pablo was signing autographs in Atlanta at a sports conference and I ran up to him and told him that I was going to break his record in a kind of brash and trash talky manner. He smiled and asked me my name. A few days later he gave my name to coach Skip Kinney at Stanford and the rest is history.
Did you end up breaking Pablo’s record?
I was nowhere near breaking Pablo’s record. Then on the first day of my senior year, Coach Kinney told me there was a new coach helping out with the butterfly group. When I walked out onto the pool deck, there he was, Stanford’s newest assistant coach. The rest of the year was like a Rocky movie with Pablo coaching me. In my final swim of my collegiate career, I broke Pablo’s record in the 100 yard butterfly at the 1998 NCAA Championships and we won the team title!
What was it like being a student athlete at Stanford? You broke quite a few records and became the first African-American to qualify for the 1995 Pan Pacific Games in Atlanta?My life as a student-athlete at Stanford was one of the most challenging and productive periods. The Stanford program was such well-oiled machine. I got a lot of support from my teammates and coaches. The records and championships didn’t come easy. Probably the biggest lesson I learned during that time was that talent can only take one so far, you have to put in the work. It was great to compete in the Pan Pacific Games! I don’t think I realized it at the time but it was a great opportunity to represent my country at an international meet in my hometown.
Who are some of the swimmers that you admire and why?
That’s a very long list! I really admire Michael Phelps. His family housed me at a meet in Baltimore and I had an opportunity to get to know him. I wish I could have been a better friend and mentor to him but I was way too focused on my own career at the time. What I learned is that sometimes the best work you can do in your career is to help someone advance in theirs. I admire Michael for the man he has become, the tough times he went through as a kid and the incredible body of work he has established in his career. I also admire my best buddy, Gary Hall Jr. Gary (pictured right, with Sabir) and I met at swim camp when I was 14 years old. I didn’t have any friends and some kids started to treat me like an outsider. Gary stepped in, told the kids to stop harassing me and we’ve been friends ever since. In 2004, we were training partners and had the best summer of our competitive careers, with Gary winning a gold medal in the 50 free at the Olympics. Gary was a groomsman at my wedding and wrote a romance novel based on my wife, Jenny, and me. He’s a great friend.
What are your thoughts on African-Americans and swimming?
I’m extremely excited to see African-Americans leading the world in the sport of swimming. We have deep roots in swimming, going back centuries, and I believe every child regardless of his or her race should have the opportunity to learn to swim and have a relationship with water. I view swimming as one of the greatest gifts ever bestowed on me and I’d like to continue to pass along the gift to as many children as I can.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I stood on the shoulders of incredible giants, athletes and human beings such as Chris Silva and Byron Davis. I met Chris when I was 11 years old and raced him. Askia Bashir flew Chris to Atlanta to speak to our team and we swam a 100 yard relay while he swam 100 yards solo. He beat us. When I arrived at Stanford, I didn’t have any family and someone told me that Chris grew up a few minutes away from campus. I met his mother Dessie who treated me like I was her own child. She’d cook for me and tell me stories about Chris as a kid growing up. Byron Davis is also a very good friend of mine as well as a role model, not only because of his work in the pool but especially for the things he’s done outside of the pool. Byron officiated my wedding. These individuals paved a path for me and it’s my goal to pave a similar path for those who come after me.
Why did you decide to open a swim school? What does your swim school offer?
I opened the Atlanta Swim School after requests from parents who wanted solid swimming programming for their children in the Atlanta area. We offer lessons for all ages, have a USA Swimming team and we’re a USA Swimming Foundation Make a Splash Local Partner. We are one of the few swim schools in Atlanta to offer scholarships as a part of our business model. For every four paying swimmers we offer one free scholarship.
Where can people go to get more information about your swim school/sign up for lessons?
www.atlantaswimschool.com or they can reach out to me at 404-597-7033.
As an African-American swimmer, how are you affecting change in your community?
Supporting learn-to-swim activities in Atlanta and supporting USA Swimming efforts are one way I am affecting change. I also try to make myself available to other organizations throughout the country who are affecting positive change. One of the events that I’m most proud of are the swim clinics that I conducted in South Africa. When I traveled to South Africa to compete in the 2015 FINA World Cup, I partnered with the South African Swimming Federation and put on clinics for African children. Those were some of the best experiences of my swimming career. In South Africa, many don’t have great access to swimming instruction nor do they have the role models that we have here in our country in the form of Cullen Jones, Lia Neal or Simone Manuel.
That sounds like an amazing experience! What resonated with you after meeting them?
When I asked them what their goals and dreams in life were, without hesitation, nearly all of the kids said that their aspirations in life were to be domestic workers. This shocked and saddened me, so I reminded them that they had the opportunity to dream big and that the father of their nation, Nelson Mandela, who had once lived in a township not too different from their own, went on to become the president. Then there was a pause and they started to get it. Shortly after, I started hearing kids say, “My big dream is to be a barrister,” and “Mine is to be a cricket player.” We did great work on that day.
Is there a motto that you live by?
I have four kids and I find myself saying, “Do it now!” all the time.
Does your family swim?
My wife, Jenny, was a competitive age-group swimmer growing up and was on the crew team at Clemson University; coincidentally I grew up racing her brother Ben in Atlanta. We have four kids: Issa, Kamal, June and Sahar. All of our kids swim except for Sahar, she’s only two weeks old and she’ll be starting lessons next week (just kidding!). Kamal is 12 and is an AAAA swimmer on pace to beat all of my times. Issa is 15 and 6’8” and loves basketball. June is four and she loves the water.
Have you become a ‘Swim Dad’? Do your kids take your advice?
Yes, I am definitely a Swim Dad! It’s much harder as the parent than as the swimmer. Feel free to ask Kamal if my insights help. Sometimes I’m not sure!