By Jeff Commings//Contributor | Thursday, February 2, 2017On August 11, 2008, Chase Jackson’s perspective as a competitive swimmer changed forever.
Like many other kids his age, the 10-year-old was glued to the television that day to watch the final of the men’s 400-meter freestyle relay at the Beijing Olympics. He was a proud American watching the United States overtake the French in a stunning finish, and he was ecstatic to see Cullen Jones, a swimmer who had the same skin tone as him, race up and down the pool at the biggest sporting event in the world.
Seeing Cullen Jones race in an Olympic final showed Chase that yes, you can be black and swim in the Olympic Games. As a black kid, he enjoyed being a competitive swimmer, but wasn’t fully certain that people with his skin color could reach the highest peak in the sport. After seeing Jones hold his gold medal, Chase Jackson knew there were no obstacles to being the best swimmer he could be.
“It was a great moment,” Jackson recalls. “It showed that it is something that we (African-American swimmers) can do, and that it’s not impossible to want to be a part of an Olympic team and win. I always believed that it could happen, but seeing it with your own eyes makes you really believe that it’s within reach.”
Now a freshman at Ball State University, Jackson is living the lessons he learned on that pivotal day. At a dual meet against the University of Evansville last week, he swam a 1:57.24 in the 200-yard backstroke, a lifetime best and a big surprise for the 18-year-old.
“I thought I would go into it (the 200 backstroke race) trying to do a little better than I did the week before, not many seconds better,” Jackson said. “This kind of training is really helping me a lot.”
Jackson grew up competing on the highly-regarded Nation’s Capital Swim Club. Though other black swimmers represented the team, Jackson said he was the only black swimmer at the pool where he trained.
“I never really put much thought into it,” Jackson said. “I was just always thinking that I was there to swim, and it doesn’t really matter who’s there.”
When his mother, Leah, was sent to the United Arab Emirates and China as an IBM employee, Chase enrolled in English-language schools in both countries from eighth grade through his junior year of high school. He vividly remembers his time swimming in Shanghai because it was the first time he trained at the same pool as other black swimmers. When he returned to the United States for his senior year of high school, he became more aware of the lack of African-American swimmers in the pool.
“It was shocking as I got older because swimming has grown over the years, but in the African-American community it’s still not something that a lot of people want to do or at least try it out,” he said. “And that’s even after seeing Cullen at the 2008 Olympics or Simone Manuel win last year at the Olympics.”
Jackson is the only black swimmer on Ball State’s swim team. He said he has seen black swimmers on rival teams at recent dual meets, but knows more work needs to be done to make the sport more enticing to minorities.
“It’s getting better very, very slowly,” he said.
Cullen Jones, whom Jackson still points to as a major role model, is leading the charge to make that happen. Jackson has not yet met his idol, but said something is in the works to arrange a meeting.
“I don’t know what I’ll do when I meet him,” Jackson said. “It’s been a dream for a long time.”