Black History Month: Coach Melissa Wilborn Impacting Her Swimmers in and out of the Pool

Black History Month: Coach Melissa Wilborn Impacting Her Swimmers in and out of the Pool

By Nailah Ellis Timberlake//Manager of Communications, Multicultural & Foundation  | Friday, February 26, 2016

As a native of Decatur, Georgia, Melissa Wilborn never thought the summer swimming league her parents signed her up for would turn into so much more.

"It wasn’t long before I started swimming competitively with the Worthington Valley Dolphins, which was 100 percent African-American and a rarity to see at that time."

By the time she was 14, Wilborn was coaching the summer league from April to July. “It was wonderful, it was something that I took to easily – at 16 I became head coach.”

A few years later, she went to Georgia State on a full swimming scholarship where she broke eight school records, two conference records and was named the school's female athlete of the year in 1990. 

By the end of her sophomore year, Georgia State had dropped their swimming program and Wilborn transferred to Auburn University.

At Auburn, Wilborn swam for David Bottom, who had also coached her at Georgia State. “I was fortunate that David was there. He knew my background and he was able to tell the other coaches how to train me.”

That following season, Auburn jumped in the NCAA Championships from 35th to eighth in just one year. “I was All-American on relays and it was good for me to swim against others who were my speed and could push me. It was a really good experience for me.”

While at Auburn University, Wilborn was an NCAA All-American and NCAA Academic All-American. She also qualified for the 1992 Olympic Trials in the 50-meter freestyle, finished top 16 at Nationals in the 50-meter freestyle, and a top 50 in the world ranking in the 50-meter freestyle.

“To go from a kid who just swam for fun, to compete at that level in such a short time was pretty fantastic and an experience I cannot even begin to describe.”

Wilborn graduated from Auburn University with a Bachelor of Science in Exercise Science and a Masters of Education in Exercise Physiology and Health Promotion.

Wilborn moved back to Atlanta where she became Head Coach at DeKalb Aquatics and began teaching physical education at the Paideia School, where she also became the head coach of their swim team.

“Having experience as a swimmer allows me to relate to my kids. I go through their trials and tribulations with them – when they don’t have a great swim, I know how to help them work through it.“ 

In the state of Georgia, Wilborn is the only female head coach of color. “I would love to see more women of color in the sport of swimming. We spend a lot of hours on the pool deck, a lot of weekends away from family and friends – you have to want to do it, love it, and embrace it – it’s hard.”

Wilborn was selected as the Head Coach of the USA Swimming Eastern Zone Diversity Select Camp at the University of Maryland in 2015. Previously, she was a Georgia zone coach in 1999 and 2004 for the Outreach camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.

“It was a pretty cool experience! The kids asked a lot of questions about how I was selected and my experiences as a swimmer. There’s more diversity now and it’s an eye-opener to see the changes from when I swam to now.”

Wilborn has also served on the USA Swimming National Outreach and Diversity Committee, where the top diverse coaches in the country collaborate to create a better atmosphere for athletes and coaches.
“I did a summit with coaches about starting and sustaining a program for 20 years. For me, it was with hard work and determination,” said Wilborn. “I’m not rattled very easily by adversity.”

Wilborn wants her team to feel like a family where her swimmers get much more than in-water instruction.  

“We help with tutoring; I have a coach who works in admissions and helps with the college application process. We have speakers come in and show the swimmers just how far they can go in life. We’re not the largest team in the state but they get the same quality and exposure as the big teams.”

DeKalb Aquatics is a USA Swimming Foundation Make a Splash Local Partner and makes a point to give back to the local community by providing free swim lessons throughout the year. 

“For a lot of kids, swimming is their shining moment – it’s great seeing how ecstatic they are when they swim the entire length of the pool for the first time. For some kids, it’s their only outlet.”

DeKalb Aquatics also sponsors The Carol Tate Swim Meet during the first week of June. Tate was a ‘Swim Mom,’ former Board Member and dedicated supporter of the club before she passed away from ovarian cancer in 2010.

“Parents are the key. They have to believe in what you’re doing, and without their support it really doesn’t matter,” said Wilborn. “Even when she was sick, Carol would come out to support us and we honor her commitment by donating a percentage of the proceeds to The Ovarian Cancer Society.”

Her son, Jarrett Tate, swam for Wilborn and was her second Jr. National Qualifier. He now carries on that family culture as a coach at DeKalb Aquatics. 

Currently, Wilborn has three of her former swimmers coaching for her at DeKalb Aquatics. “As a coach, it means a lot when my kids come back to coach for me. That’s how you know you’ve made an impact in their lives, in and out of the pool,” said Wilborn. “This is why I do it – these special moments – you’re changing lives, you’re molding kids – it’s so much more than coaching.”

For more info about DeKalb Aquatics, visit:


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