Blazing a trail for young black swimmers
Sabir Muhammad was the first black swimmer to set an American record.
November 15th, 2012
07:45 AM ET

Blazing a trail for young black swimmers

By Moni Basu, CNN

Atlanta (CNN) - On the cinder-block wall in the manager's office of the Adamsville Natatorium are photos of two heroes: Martin Luther King Jr. and Sabir Muhammad.

Here, at this pool in a predominantly black neighborhood of southwest Atlanta, it's easy to see why Muhammad, 36, looms large.

He was the first black swimmer to set an American record. He broke U.S. short-course records in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and finished his swimming career with seven Pac-10 championships titles, 25 All-American honors and three NCAA, U.S. Open and American records.

But perhaps more importantly, Muhammad helped shatter a myth that black people couldn't swim.

Photos of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sabir Muhammad are in the manager's office of the Adamsville Natatorium in Atlanta.

The schoolhouse clock hanging next to the image of a Speedo-clad Muhammad in Adamsville says 6:45 p.m., and about two dozen black children have come here after a long day of school.

Some are with the city of Atlanta's Dolphins swim team, for whom Muhammad once swam and made his mark in the sport.

Muhammad opened his own swim school, but he occasionally drops by Adamsville to see his old coach, Tommy Jackson, and stand as inspiration for a new generation.

A few of the students have traveled for more than an hour on clogged rush-hour highways. They will get home just in time for dinner, homework and bed.

As they swim lap after lap, their mothers wait for them on metal bleachers for two hours, maybe more. They do this three times a week.

Children with the city of Atlanta's Dolphins swim team receive instruction at the Adamsville Natatorium.

The air is heavy, damp and chlorine-laden. Jackson, 66, orders 335 laps for the older swimmers in the 50-yard pool.

Star swimmer Derek Cox, 15, shows up late. With no time to waste, Jackson makes sure he gets in the water fast.

"If you're not breathing hard, you need to swim a little harder," Jackson yells.

The former schoolteacher has been coaching inner-city kids to swim for as long as he can remember. He was a mentor for Muhammad, who, as a boy, ate dinner at Jackson's house and even slept there some nights.

Swimming, Jackson tells his students, is a life skill. If you fall in the water, you'll drown, he says. If you don't learn discipline, you'll die in other ways.

Fear of the water

Muhammad might have been like so many black kids in America who don't know how to swim.

The statistics are dire: 70% of African-American children cannot swim, compared with 42% of white children, according to USA Swimming. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American children between the ages of 5 and 14 drown at a rate almost three times higher than white children in the same age range.

It's an issue that haunts Wanda Butts, one of the Top 10 CNN Heroes of 2012. Butts' 16-year-old son drowned six years ago while rafting on a lake with friends. He couldn't swim.

In memory of her son, Butts started the Josh Project, which provides low-cost swimming lessons for more than 1,000 children — most of them minorities — in Toledo, Ohio.

"It did not occur to me that my son would drown because he didn't know water safety," she says. "Josh was never taught the basic life skill of learning how to swim."

The same tragedy almost befell Muhammad's parents.

When he was 3, Muhammad ran into a river at a family reunion and would surely have drowned. But his father, who learned to swim in the ponds around his hometown of Winnfield, Louisiana, dived in and saved his son's life.

No one else there that day knew how to swim.

Swimming is a lot like reading in that it's so much easier to learn as a child. Yet, for a variety of reasons, getting in the water is not a priority for many black families in America.

For many years, segregation kept black people out of public pools and beaches. Later, sham studies claimed  African-Americans were less buoyant and, therefore, more disadvantaged in the water than whites.

Over generations, as many blacks were kept out of the water, some developed a fear, says Carol Irwin, a health sports sciences professor in Memphis, Tennessee, who researched the issue for USA Swimming. Many were too afraid to let their children learn to swim.

The people Irwin interviewed for her research cited other reasons as well for not getting wet.

Read the full study from USA Swimming (PDF)

Some said they got no encouragement from their parents or other elders in the family. Or that it was a matter of not getting their hair wet.

In black culture, a richness of hairstory

Some people complained that the chemicals in swimming pools, as well as the salt in the ocean, made their skin dry and ashen.

Others cited difficulty in accessing public pools or having no money to pay for swim classes, a common problem  Butts is trying to combat in Ohio.

A ticket out

Muhammad says he got lucky when his mother, Jessica, got a job as a locker-room attendant at a pool in a public housing project in downtown Atlanta.

She collected dirty clothes and put them in baskets. She was one step up from a janitor.

Muhammad was 7 then and often sat and watched his mother work. One day he got into the pool.

Dolphins coach Tommy Jackson, left, was a mentor for star swimmer Sabir Muhammad.

He learned to swim and later became a lifeguard and raced with the Dolphins, Atlanta's first inner-city team. By the time he neared graduation, Stanford University in California offered him a full swimming scholarship.

Swimming erased his fears and gave him confidence. In the water, he felt the whole world was his.

"Think about it," he says. "It's a daunting experience for a child who can't swim to get into the water. To overcome that is huge. There's nothing else that's as binary as live or die."

Getting wet, learning life

All the kids at the Adamsville Natatorium know Muhammad — the trailblazer in the water. They need a hero like him, Wilcox says. In the YMCA-funded research she conducted for USA Swimming, people told her that it would take more than an informational flyer to put their kids in the water.

They wanted an advocate, someone they could trust. This was a matter of life and death, after all. Jackson, the coach, says he wants to give his students a head start in life, just as he did for Muhammad.

Learning to swim is so much more than being able to move in the water, he says. It's about self-esteem, healthy eating, building good character and discipline — it takes a lot of will power to swim 335 yards three days a week.

The students' mothers say they've noticed big changes. There's a high correlation, they say, between their children's swimming skills and how they perform in the classroom.

Several of the kids attend elite, private schools in Atlanta such as The Paideia School and The Westminster Schools. Their moms hope they, like Muhammad, will find their way to a reputable university, whether through their strokes in the water or their grades in the classroom.

"The coaches really care here," says Michelle Brown, whose daughters, Brianna, 13, and Alexis, 9, are expert swimmers.

"I never learned how to swim," she says. "But I always had this fear my kids might drown."

The moms waiting at swim practice say it's time well spent for their children.

On this evening, half the moms who are waiting don't know how to swim.

They sit and laugh and joke — they're part of a mom's club that's formed from all the hours they spend together. They don't mind giving up hours in their long days.

"It's worth it," they say.

Melissa Jones brings her daughter Ariel, 14, who began swimming when she was 6. Jones' primary goal was fitness. Ariel took to the water and now races at swim meets with the Dolphins.

Jones says the mothers discuss how to promote Adamsville's swimming program so that many more kids will take advantage.

Some of the mothers say they have pools closer to their house, but it's important for their children not to be the only black kid in the pool. That's something that happens more often than it should, says Tina Braboy.

"There are so many stereotypes that black kids can't swim," Braboy says, looking down at the pool below her: blue water and brown skin. Most of the students here are African-Americans.

Braboy thinks it's a good thing for her daughter Bruntie to learn to swim with kids who look like her. And a good thing to Muhammad as inspiration.

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Filed under: Black in America • CNN Heroes • Sports • Where we live
soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Dr Steve Beerman

    Marginated and disadvantaged populations all over the world have a high child and adult drowning rate. This is an example of a wonderful program that is targeted to less adoptive, most at risk communities that need more of our attention and our support. The survival swimming approach with no barriers to participation reduces drowning deaths. Great work!!! It is again interesting that the leader of this program was not water comfortable or swimming skilled at the start of the program. Well done!!!!

    December 2, 2012 at 11:05 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Spinner

    Many parents who are afraid of the water pass on their fears to their children. Both of my husband's parents could not swim and neither could he. He finally learned to swim about three years ago. He is trying to break that cycle with his son.

    November 27, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Report abuse |
  3. karen14217

    My kids are half white/half Asian. We lived in Columbia, SC when they were little. Took them to the public pool which had all black kids. Those kids were pretty mean and nasty to my two. Turned out that all the public pools there were dominated by the blacks and they made non-blacks definitely feel unwelcome.

    The pools where the white kids swam were all expensive private clubs!! And the Y was pretty expensive too. I finally found a community swim club so that they could learn to swim that way. But they never got to just play in a pool. Very sad. Was so glad to leave that state and go to Pennsylvania where there were decent public pools for ALL.

    November 16, 2012 at 6:43 am | Report abuse |
  4. Fred

    Enough allready, go swim, go do anything you want just like everyone else.
    As long as we keep calling out our differences the longer we will be seperated by perception.

    November 16, 2012 at 5:49 am | Report abuse |
  5. Name*oldenuf2nobetr

    Why can't he just be a great swimmer? Why does he have to be a black swimmer? I realize we should all be proud of our heritage /culture but we should be recognized for our accomplishes as individuals.For who we are not what we are

    November 15, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Report abuse |
    • Mark

      These attempts to separate people by race is very silly. People who do not swim do not usually do not have access to water. It has nothing to do with race. When you go to the Caribbean you will see black people swimming and running the water sports. Growing up in the Caribbean, we had High School swim championships. This race theory and swimming is bunk. However, the article is highlighting that these are kids without much knowledge and access to swimming.

      November 17, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Name*oldenuf2nobetr

    Why can't he just be a great swimmer? Why does he have to be a black swimmer? We need to stop labelling everyone I realize we should all be proud of our heritage /culture but its also so very important to be recognized as individuals

    November 15, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Happy

      You are so right! that is what continues to seperate Americans

      December 5, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Huh

    Black children don't take up swimming as a sport because of the racism that kept public pools segregated. There families have no experience. Pool racism still exists. next door accepted. Black swimmers are just as talented but while the families proudly support their swimmers they have no experience in that world. Sponsoring scholarships to swim clubs would provide entry to the swim world. there are talented athletes out there.

    November 15, 2012 at 10:22 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Name*CarterB

    I am a 49 year old black male born in Charlotte, N.C. I spent my years as a youth & on into my teenage years swimming at Cordelia Park's Public Swimming Pool. I wasn't alone. The other children, teenagers, and adults swam on daily basis. I found it to be insulting that someone would say that blacks can't swim or are afraid to swim.

    November 15, 2012 at 6:42 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Analystgirl

    If the parents weren't allowed to swim, they are less likely to teach their kids to swim. Time to turn this around!

    November 15, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Bubba

    So many black Olympic medalists from Africa.

    November 15, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Gary

    Any human is capable of swimming no matter what race. Where did some one come up with blacks can't swim?

    November 15, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Report abuse |
  12. spent

    They are not BLACK...Black is the absence of all color, so they could not be seen without illumination. Stop referring to these people as BLACK! Posted by a pink hued caucasian.

    November 15, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • Happy

      WELL SAID!!!!!

      December 5, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Report abuse |
  13. wrm

    You are really dedicating your time to fight the myth that "black people can't swim?" Do you really believe that the 14 people out there who actually think people can't swim because they are black are going to be affected by the results of your experiment?

    November 15, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • KCBob

      It's not that they can't per se, it's that they often don't have the opportunity to go to a community pool, with deep water, and have instruction in how to swim. Whether it's by economics, or geographical location, it is a fact....and hopefully one that can or will change for the better.

      November 15, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Johnny Smackdown

    Thank you CNN for deleting my posts, nice to know you censor counter arguments yet allow racist comments.

    November 15, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Swimmer

    Actually it IS an instinct. All babies can swim. My mother had me swimming at the age of 6 months. Been swimming since.

    November 15, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Johnny Smackdown

    There is nothing negative in this article, yet..the response has some very angry, negative responses from what is supposed to be an enlightening article. I realize that society no longer allows outright racism and internet forums are the last domain for racist cowards, but even that will run out eventually. Anonymity online will not always be and soon every comment will have a real name and face to attach to it. I know society is turning every rock and intolerance is shunned and you are all being pushed into a corner. Good. Fake Christian, non-intellectual, mean-spirited people should have nowhere to go.

    November 15, 2012 at 11:41 am | Report abuse |
  17. Brian M

    So, 335 Laps does not equal 335 Yards. 335 laps in the 50 yard pool is over 9 miles a day! Assuming 10 mins / 500 yards, this means a good 5.5 hour workout.

    November 15, 2012 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
    • swimmer

      One lap is just 25 yards – so 335 laps would be ~8300 yards. i wouldn't say its a typical practice – but not out of the question

      November 15, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Report abuse |
      • Brian M

        Just based upon the following line from the article: "The air is heavy, damp and chlorine-laden. Jackson, 66, orders 335 laps for the older swimmers in the 50-yard pool." Per Olympics.org's online glossary, A Lap is defined as a length of the pool. Thus, according to google's calculator, 50 yards * 335 = 9.51704545 miles.

        November 28, 2012 at 10:49 am | Report abuse |
      • danshaughnessy1918

        One lap is NOT 25 yards. Assuming a 25-yard pool, one lap is 50 yards. One LENGTH is 25 yards.

        November 16, 2012 at 9:04 am | Report abuse |
    • Stu

      I swam through high school and into college. 335 laps in a 50 yard pool (i have never seen a 50 yard pool, they are all 50 meters) would be 3.17 miles. If this were a 25 yard pool, which is very common for short course, then they would be swimming about 1.6 miles for their 2 hour workout which is very do-able. If you break down 2600 yards to 100 yard sets, this allows over 4 1/2 minutes per 100 yards swam, a very slow pace. So if we revert back to 50 yards, we still have 2'15" for each 100 yards swam, which again, is do-able for the older kids, as was pointed out in the article.

      November 15, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      I'm a swim coach and no way are they doing almost 17,000 yd workouts. It was probably a typo - 33-50 laps would be more likely for that age group and 3 day/week practices.

      November 15, 2012 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
      • KCBob

        At the top of the article is says they swim 335 laps in a 50 yard swimming pool 3 times a week... At the end of the article, it says they swim 335 yards 3 times a week which 1.) is only 6-1/2 laps which isn't that much, and 2.) Has them stopping in the pool 15 yards short of the pool edge... which seems a little dangerous.... I guess proof reading is highly over rated at CNN these days... There was an accident a couple years back in texas where two large black families went to a river for a BBQ and picnic style party. Before they even had the tables set up, 9 kids ran into the river, and stepped into the channel of the creek over their heads. Only 1 of the 9 was rescued, by a white fisherman on the shore, because not one person in either family knew how to swim..... It is a matter of life and death and it is important to learn, whatever your race.

        November 15, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Robert

    "heterogenous multicultural community" I too grew up in such a community and hence my prejudices are well founded.

    November 15, 2012 at 10:39 am | Report abuse |
  19. MasterWooten

    Yep... real funny ... lol

    November 15, 2012 at 10:07 am | Report abuse |
  20. Mimimama

    Years ago when I was still working, I had the occasion to talk with some black co workers about getting their children into swim lessons since we live around a good deal of water. They were very hesitant to do so, stating that they themselves did not swim, and were unsure as to whether or not having their children participate was important. Hopefully, with the Josh project this mindset will change. The American Red Cross and many other organizations offer swim lessons at a reasonable or sometimes no cost. Every child in America needs to know who to swim well enough to keep their head above water at a minimum.

    November 15, 2012 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |