Sigma Gamma Rho has partnered with USA Swimming to provide clinics around the country.
BY ANDREA K. MCDANIELS
The children lined up along the side of the pool at the Gaffney Fitness Center at Fort Meade like ducks behind their mother.
Volunteer coaches guided them into the water and ran through basic swimming techniques. The children ducked their faces underwater and blew bubbles, then kicked their way across the pool with the aid of coaches who pulled them along by their hands. Then they floated on their backs; their arms and legs spread wide.
The youngsters were taking part in a swim clinic organized by Sigma Gamma Rho, an African-American sorority.
The organization, in partnership with USA Swimming, has been hosting swim clinics and other events around the country for five years to address the large number of African-Americans who can’t swim and sometimes drown. They named the initiative Swim 1922 as a tribute to the year the sorority was founded.
Sixty-four percent of African-American children can’t swim; they drown at a rate nearly three times higher than their White peers, according to USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport. In Maryland, the disparity in drowning is not as great.
One of every 100,000 White people died by drowning in 2012 compared to 1.3 of every 100,000 African-Americans, according to the Maryland Health Department. The Baltimore City Health Department said Whites drowned at higher rates in the city but officials haven’t explored the reason.
The Sigma Gamma Rho initiative is part of a broader effort by USA Swimming to increase the sport’s diversity.
Most in pools
The national disparity in drownings has been a problem for some time, one that many different organizations have tried to tackle and the Centers for Disease Control has tracked.
The disparities are most pronounced in swimming pool drownings.
African-Americans ages 5 to 19 drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than Whites, according to the CDC.
African-American children ages 11 to 12 are at even greater risk; they drown in swimming pools at rates 10 times that of peer Whites.
“Parents are taking their kids to pools and the beach and so many of them don’t know how to swim,” said Barbara Sawyer, president of the Baltimore chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho. “Anything could happen while they are in the water.”
History and hair
Sigma Gamma Rho surveyed 3,200 women in its organization in 2012 to try to learn why African-Americans aren’t swimming at higher rates.
The sorority found some of its members had bad experiences as children, either near-drownings or being thrown into the water unexpectedly.
Others were worried about the additional work involved with African-American women’s hair care, while others said swim lessons cost too much.
Other research has found historical influences such as the past segregation of public pools, which African-Americans once were forbidden to use. Even after the end of formal segregation, many Black people said they were made to feel unwelcome at municipal pools.
Helping Black kids
“Swimming as a skill, as a recreation, as a sport and as a social activity has been passed down generationally among white Americans,” said Jeff Wiltse, a professor of history at the University of Montana and author of the book “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.” “This wasn’t the case with African-Americans.”
In Baltimore, 4M Swim and Recreation Inc. has taught generations of Black children to swim. Ebony Rosemond started Black Kids Swim in Largo, after noticing the lack of diversity at her daughter’s swim meets.
The organization promotes swimming among African-Americans and has a website that includes hair care and water safety tips and articles on famous Black swimmers.
“We started the organization to educate parents and promote the sport to kids,” Rosemond said. “We want to show African-American children there are others who look like them who are excelling in the sport.”
Black moms first
Sigma Gamma Rho, using volunteer coaches provided by USA Swimming, started out teaching Black mothers who they hoped would also want their children to learn to swim. If a parent can’t swim, there is only a 19 percent chance that a child in that household will learn to swim, according to USA Swimming.
The sorority then began holding clinics to teach children as well. Formal swimming lessons can reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88 percent, according to USA Swimming.
“It’s about getting more people into the pool,” said Dawne Stanton, president of the Silver Spring alumni chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho, which sponsored the Fort Meade clinic. “It’s about water safety and saving people’s lives.”
The one-day clinics are meant to expose families to swimming and spark an interest in taking more classes. The sorority brings in high-profile African-American swimmers to help teach some of the classes.
The growth in the number of African-American Olympian swimmers, such as Simone Manuel, 21, the first African-American woman swimmer to win a gold medal, has put a more diverse face on the sport in recent years.
Maritza McClendon, who in 2004 became the first Black woman to make the U.S. Olympic swim team, helped coach the children at Fort Meade.