While lots of other kids are sleeping in and playing video games this summer, a group of dedicated swimmers are hard at work, preparing for the upcoming competitive season reports theroot.com. The Bedford-Stuyvesant YMCA Piranhas team, in Brooklyn, N.Y., has won nearly a dozen trophies since forming in 1997. This year’s team has 45 swimmers, the majority African American. Eighteen of the team’s swimmers qualified to compete at the state championship level—an accomplishment that few black athletes achieve.
They’re among the most elite swimmers in New York. But their skill and speed in the pool didn’t happen overnight. One mother, Talene Perry-Renwick, made a bold decision: She introduced her two children to swimming at just 8 months old.
“As a new parent, you read books about child development, and I read recommendations about getting your kids into the pool as early as possible,” says Renwick, who learned to swim as a toddler. “I also thought it would be a fun, lifelong activity for us.”
And while these young people are making waves on the competitive stage, they’re also breaking stereotypes about African Americans and swimming, and setting an example that could go a long way to saving lives.
According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children ages 5-19 drown in swimming pools more than five times the rate of white children. Their lack of swimming skills ends, all too often, in tragedy.
Renwick’s children, Ashley, 11, and Matthew, 8, both qualified for the state championships. Piranhas coach Erwin Samuels describes them as strong swimmers. He recalls seeing Matthew swimming underwater for long periods when he was younger. “I always knew Matt would make the team,” Samuels says. “He easily picked up all the strokes at age 7.”
Samuels, 33, understands many of the challenges his team faces. He learned to swim in high school and fell in love with the sport. Some of his friends tried to discourage his passion for swimming and suggested other sports that are more traditional for black athletes. But he ignored them and competed successfully at the state level.
He admits that the Piranhas face some disadvantages. For one thing, most of them started competitive swimming later than their competitors did. And other teams have facilities to be able to practice year-round, while the Piranhas have to give up their pool to summer campers.
However, Samuels levels the playing field by instilling commitment and hard work in his team. During the YMCA’s offseason, they practice “dry land” swimming, stretching and weight training to improve their speed.
He also addresses the pink elephant in the room: race. Most of the other teams—and the spectators—are predominantly white. That could create a tremendous amount of pressure on his team.
His pep talk goes something like this: “Look, the other kids have been swimming for a long time. But you’ve put in a lot of hard work, and we’re here for a purpose.” Despite the disadvantages, the Piranhas finish at the top.
The disparity is rooted in this country’s racial history. During segregation, African Americans had few options if they wanted to learn how to swim. At the same time, erroneous academic studies said black people lacked the buoyancy whites have. That myth, says a diversity specialist with USA Swimming, continues to fuel the misperception that black folks can’t swim.