Black History Month: Gary Peterson Continues to Inspire After 40 Years in Swimming

Black History Month: Gary Peterson Continues to Inspire After 40 Years in Swimming

By Stafford Braxton//USA Swimming Communications Intern  | Wednesday, February 24, 2016


A native of Detroit, MI, Gary Peterson has dedicated much of his life to promoting the sport of swimming in the African-American community.

Peterson learned to appreciate the aquatic sport from an early age. He began his swimming journey at the early age of five years old, when his mother enrolled him in lessons at the local Detroit YMCA.

“I went to summer camp one year and enjoyed swimming with the other kids. When I returned home, my mother enrolled me in lessons at the YMCA in downtown Detroit.”

For years, Peterson swam with his local YMCA. At age 12, he began to develop a love for the sport that would ignite his future endeavors. That summer, he visited his brother in Pennsylvania, where he swam daily at a local YMCA.

“That is when I really began to fall in love with the sport,” Peterson reminisced, “I would get in the pool to swim laps and before you know it, the lifeguard worked me up to swimming the mile.”

After that summer, Peterson returned to Detroit where he joined his junior high school swim team and later the Martin Luther King Jr. High School swim team, both coached by Clyde James. 

After high school, Peterson earned a scholarship to South Carolina State University where he graduated with a degree in business administration with a minor in economics. 

During his summer breaks, Peterson went home to Detroit and worked as a lifeguard the City's Parks and Recreation Department. After graduation, he was hired as a full-time swim instructor for the City of Detroit Recreation Department. 

“I stayed with the City of Detroit Recreation department for over 38 years,” said Peterson, “In that time, I’ve coached a lot of kids and developed many great relationships, with parents, coaches and swimmers.”

He retired in 2011, but continued to voluntarily coach local teams, more specifically as the coach of Coleman Young Recreation Center. 

Peterson shared that clubs in Detroit, when in city limits, compete against each other, but when traveling out of the city, the clubs combine into one team.

“We unite as one. It gives us more impact with regards to kids for relays, but it also gives them a sense of camaraderie,” says Peterson. “It inspires them to push themselves, because they are competing for more than just their club, but for each other.”

Peterson believes that parental and fan support when competing outside the city of Detroit, helps build character and confidence. “It is important as a minority in the sport, to look up in the stands and see more than just one parent, but to have an entire section of parents, swimmers and coaches cheering you on.”

In addition to his incredible coaching credentials, Peterson has been consistently involved with the USA Swimming Diversity Coach Mentorship Program, which focuses on active coaches in urban areas who are interested in raising their level of expertise and skill. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity for coaches who are just getting into swimming, especially in the minority community, because there are different challenges that you face in this sport,” Peterson said. “As coaches, we have the chance to mentor someone on how to handle those challenges and give them the fundamental knowledge they need to be successful.”
Having spent over 40 years in the sport of swimming in many different roles, promoting the sport predominately to the African-American community, Peterson is beginning to see notable progress.

“I think the rate of African-Americans in swimming has grown tremendously over the last 10 years or so,” Peterson reflects. “The recognition of Cullen Jones and other minority swimmers such as Maritza Correia, has helped a significant amount of African-Americans become interested in the sport.”

Although he sees growth, Peterson is not convinced that the community has done all it can do to promote the sport of swimming, as well as water safety, and believes there is still work to be done.

“I always tell people that it is a three-prong set-up: you need the swimmers who are dedicated to the sport, the coaches who are willing to teach and develop their athletes, and the parents who are willing to introduce their children to a new sport.”

“We also need recreation departments to continue funding aquatics programs in order to help bring a different demographic to a sport that they would normally have access to.”

Over the length of his career, Peterson has taught and inspired the lives of thousands with the sport of swimming. Many of his swimmers have gone on to become highly influential contributors in their professional fields.

“I’ve been fortunate enough to have kids who have gone on to become doctors, judges and lawyers, and it is because of their dedication,” says Coach Peterson. “They all tell me the same thing that I’ve been saying for the last 40 years of my coaching career, ‘Whatever the mind can conceive and believe, it can achieve’ and it is truly humbling.” 

He attributes their success to the dedication in which they exemplified in the pool. 

“The discipline you learn when participating in swimming is so strong and stringent, that if you excel in the sport, you’ll excel in every part of your life.”

He credits his parents for the success he has seen through his coaching career. The willingness of the parents to enroll their children to an unknown sport and the trust they instill in him is priceless.

“Everything I’ve ever done and all the accolades I’ve received are because of my parents,” Peterson says, “My parents are the reason for my success, without them there would be no swimmers to coach.”

Gary Peterson’s positives strides in the African-American community and with USA Swimming to promote water safety and excel in the sport of swimming within minority groups have been recognized as among the best in the community.

Peterson was honored at the 30th Annual Black History Invitational Swim Meet for his accomplishments within the African-American community. 

“It was a great honor and a humbling experience [to be honored at the meet] because I have the opportunity to serve the swimming community and help as many kids as I possibly can,” said Peterson. “My work is a small token of gratitude for the sport that has given me so much in my life, it is truly all about the swimmers.”



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