Swimming Laps Around the Stereotypes

Times Staff Writer

With each graceful stroke through the water, the sinewy teen leaves one of the nation’s lingering stereotypes farther behind in his wake.

A fierce competitor, 13-year-old Piankhi Gibson is making waves as an African American swimmer in an arena long dominated by white athletes.

In the largely solitary sport, black swimmers are still isolated. But that doesn’t bother Gibson.

He ignores black friends who mock his skimpy swimsuit and white competitors who insist he doesn’t belong, including one recently in San Luis Obispo who challenged him: “What are you doing here? Why don’t you go back to Oakland?”


Gibson finds peace in the water: “Swimming isn’t the same as land sports. You have to use different parts of your mind and body. I like how you feel weightless in the water.”

Gibson and 26 other black teens will compete today and Sunday in a Washington, D.C., swim meet for minority athletes designed to draw more participation. The Black Star Line All-Star Swim Team -- African Americans chosen from Bay Area swim clubs -- is one of only a handful of predominantly black teams in the nation.

Gibson’s prowess in the pool comes despite a long-standing challenge in most black communities: the lack of opportunities for many aspiring athletes to perform an elegant butterfly, back kick or breaststroke at the competitive level.

Citing cultural and economic barriers that have excluded minorities, USA Swimming, the sport’s sanctioning body, created a diversity task force in 2004 to attract more minorities into competitive waters. Of the organization’s 280,000 members nationwide, less than 1% are African American and even fewer are Latino.

“That’s a significant difference from the nation’s ethnic makeup,” said Pat Hogan, club development director for USA Swimming, who sits on the task force. “By 2050, only 50% of the U.S. population will be white. Swimming needs to reflect that. But there are cultural walls to break through.”

Although Eastern cities such as Washington, Philadelphia and Atlanta have predominantly black clubs, such groups are rare elsewhere. In Los Angeles, African Americans comprise only 5% of the swimmers on the 38 teams in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Started in 1987, this weekend’s Black History Invitational Swim Meet in Washington is among several intended to encourage competitive black swimmers to reach the sport’s highest ranks. But many of the finest black athletes are lured away from swimming and into sports that come with the potential for high incomes.

Few black swimmers have competed on the U.S. Olympic team. Anthony Irvin, from the Los Angeles area, captured a gold medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2000 Sydney Games. Four years later, Maritza Correia of Valrico, Fla., won a silver in the 400-meter relay in Athens.


Competitive swimming, experts say, still lacks a Tiger Woods or Arthur Ashe to provide the boost those African American athletes gave to golf and tennis. There are other barriers as well: Black high school swimmers often lack year-round access to pools or the money to hire private coaches.

“People of color are swimming,” said Patrick Escobar, vice president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation in Los Angeles and a USA Swimming diversity task force member. “The question is: How do we get kids who learn to swim in inner-city pools to commit to training and participation that leads to rising to a higher level?”

The Black Star Line All-Star swimmers are one answer. The club was founded by Anyika Nkululeko, a San Jose social worker and father of eight who watched his daughter, Nkosazana, compete in a sport that attracted few other African American swimmers.

He knows one reason why: Blacks have not always been welcomed at pools. “My parents come from Mississippi, back when blacks were only allowed to swim in creeks,” he said. “African Americans have historically been denied access to pools. Somewhere, that idea has stuck with many of us and we have stayed away.”


After taking only two swimmers to the 19th Black History Invitational in the nation’s capital last year, Nkululeko vowed to return with a competitive team. He put the word out, attracting three black swim coaches and more than two dozen African American swimmers between the ages of 7 and 17.

Wearing red caps and goggles, team members practiced recently at an Oakland public pool, their parents looking on intently. Coach Aquil Rasheed attributed the team’s success to swimmers -- and parents.

“They’re making sure their child stays committed,” he said. “Swimming is not pushed in our community. These people are moving against the current.”

Parent Ron Chism has heard the rumors about why more blacks don’t swim -- that boys disdain the sport’s tiny bathing suit and that girls don’t want to get their hair wet. One man Chism met outside a dive shop in Monterey offered an even more preposterous theory.


“He said blacks are heavy-boned with dense muscle, so they don’t float,” Chism said. “It’s garbage. But even a lot of blacks believe it -- because it’s all they’ve heard.”

For years, Chism has managed a pool in San Francisco, where he has coached, taught classes and developed programs. All three of his sons -- ages 9, 10 and 12 -- are Black Star Line All-Star members. “Every kid should know how to swim,” he said. “It’s beyond mere competition. It’s a life skill.”

A few years ago, Chism attended the black swim meet in Washington. “I saw hundreds of skilled black swimmers in one pool,” he said. “It was the first time I’d seen that in more than 30 years around the water. It was very emotional for me.”

Nearby, Rasheed and Jason Jefferson, who coaches swimming at Oakland’s Skyline High School, gathered the team into a huddle in the pool. “Who are we?” they chanted repeatedly as their parents clapped. “Black Star!” came the response.


Chism would like to see more all-black swim meets, including one in California.

“We want black kids to have a point of reference, a place they feel they belong and aren’t just a novelty,” he said, “so when the big race comes, their minds don’t get destroyed while their hearts are capable of producing.”

At 10, Naeem Chism is already dreaming about his big race.

“I’d like to try the Olympics someday,” he said. “Now there’s a race -- people from different countries. Strangers. You don’t know their weaknesses or their strengths. But you know people back home are rooting for you.”