Around 300 male swimmers and divers competed at this year’s NCAA championships at the University of Minnesota’s Jean K. Freeman Aquatic Center, from March 22–25. However, during the four-day competition, the eye check found only a few Black swimmers there. Two of them who spoke to the MSR said they weren’t surprised.
According to the NCAA, there were 259 Black males and 201 Black female swimmers in total in all three college divisions in 2022.
“I’m not gonna sugarcoat it,” admitted Cal graduate student Reece Whitley. “It is predominately White and has been since I’ve been a part of it.”
North Carolina State sophomore David Curtiss added, “I think we need to improve, bring the African American community and Black people into the sport of swimming.”
Anthony Nesty is one of four Black men’s head swimming coaches. “I was good at swimming, but I wanted to give coaching a shot,” said the fifth-year Florida men’s swimming coach. This is his second season as Florida’s women’s head coach. His men’s team finished third in the 2022 NCAAs and finished sixth this year.
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Nesty also is the first Black coach to lead a U.S. team to the World Championships (2022). “I felt that I could inspire kids, help kids reach their potential, so I decided to coach,” he noted. The Suriname native, Olympic gold-medalist, and 1994 Florida grad won three consecutive NCAA individual swimming titles in the 100-meter fly (1990-92) and held the school’s NCAA record for titles until 2006.
Whitley, a multi-time All-American in the 100 and 200-meter breaststroke, and 200 and 400-meter medley relay, started swimming at a young age. “I wanted to be in water from a very young age. I failed the deep-water test at summer camp, and I failed it two more times after that,” he recalled. “I asked my mom to give me some lessons and she was gracious enough to enroll me.”
Curtiss, who said he has been swimming for over 12 years, is a two-time All-American in the 50-meter freestyle and 200-meter medley relay, a three-time USA Swimming National Team member and the American high school record holder in the 50-yard freestyle.
This year’s NCAAs was his second consecutive appearance. “Last year I was definitely a lot more scared and nervous. But this year, I definitely feel like I’m supposed to be here.”
Swimming has historically been a sport plagued by several myths about why Blacks aren’t more involved, ranging from fear of the water to swimming ruining our hair. But there’s also some truths, such as having less access to pools and swimming facilities and the cost factor, especially for those from disadvantaged areas.
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But Black hair can’t be totally dismissed. “It’s more difficult than I would say for us than other people,” said Curtiss. “But most of the stereotypes are false. I love every day trying to prove those stereotypes wrong.”
Tiffany Monique Quash, a former Division II swimmer, says that certain stereotypes, such as Black people can’t float, existed when she swam competitively, and sadly still exist today. “I experienced a lot of discrimination as a swimmer. That’s one of the reasons that really drove me to write the piece,” said Quash of her 2018 paper on Black swimmers’ experiences in college that was published in the “International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education.”
She also used that as her dissertation topic for her Ph.D., in quantitative research methodology at American University. In her spare time, she coaches swimmers in the D.C.-area.
“More education and reeducation is needed,” said Quash. But despite the stereotypes, Blacks can swim.
Arizona State Senior Associate Athletic Director Deana Garner-Smith pointed out, “I’ve been working with our aquatics program, our swimming and diving teams, the women’s triathlon team, our women’s water polo team, and there’s definitely more diversity within those sports. For the past three or four years, we have had three African American swimmers on our team.”
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Said Whitley, “The opportunities that this sport can give you are unparalleled.”
“The stereotypes aren’t true,” concluded Curtiss. “African Americans can swim.”