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Programs seek to ensure everyone’s into the pool

Times Staff Writer

At 6 feet 9, Andre Brent has the long, angular body of an NBA all-star. And growing up on the edge of Watts, he admits there was a lot of peer pressure on him to become just that.

Instead, he joined the swim team at Locke High in the 1970s and did well enough to make the City Section championships as a senior before going on to compete in the freestyle and backstroke at Cal State Northridge.

Whenever he returned to the old neighborhood, he says he felt like something of a celebrity -- or maybe just an anomaly.

“A few said, ‘Hey, you were a swimmer here. You were the last swimmer we ever had,’ ” recalled Brent, who today works with young swimmers at a pool in Exposition Park. “We’ve had some great point guards come out of there, but no swim team anymore.”

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Locke’s not alone. In fact, fewer than half the 104 City Section schools with athletic programs competed in swimming last spring. That’s a trend that worries the folks at USA Swimming, who have embarked on an ambitious campaign to bring the sport back to low-income communities. And they hope to use the attention focused on this month’s Beijing Olympics to help in that effort.

“That’s certainly the plan,” said John Cruzat, USA Swimming’s national diversity specialist. “At the outset that was not part of the strategic piece. But it does work out that a high-visibility event like the Olympics would help to raise the visibility of this program.”

This year, a report conducted by researchers in the department of Health and Sport Sciences at the University of Memphis showed many minority youths must overcome a number of social and economic barriers to get into swimming. Those range from little parental encouragement and a fear of drowning to a lack of pools and the belief that swimming isn’t cool.

Nearly 60% of African American children don’t know how to swim, the Memphis study showed.

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“There’s no doubt there’s a link historically,” said Cruzat, who had to fight for access to a pool in Chicago, yet went on to swim competitively in high school. “There were not a lot of opportunities for, not just African Americans. The same drowning rates we’re seeing in the African American community we’re also seeing in the Hispanic, Native American and other multicultural communities.”

As a result, the study found, the rate of accidental drowning deaths is nearly three times higher for minorities ages 5 to 14 than it is for whites, “which is totally unnecessary,” former Olympic rower Anita L. DeFrantz said.

So DeFrantz and the LA84 Foundation, of which she is president, has continued to expand its 23-year-old summer swim program, now reaching more than 9,000 children at more than 100 pools in Los Angeles County. Nearly three years ago, Kaiser Permanente and the City of Los Angeles combined on a similar project called Operation Splash, which organizers say will provide free swim lessons to more than 8,000 kids and their parents at 35 pools in low-income neighborhoods this summer.

For DeFrantz and others, however, it’s a short leap from learning to swim to learning to compete in the pool.

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“We knew that kids of skin color could swim,” DeFrantz said. “You know what it is? It’s opportunity, encouragement and good coaching. Obviously you needed to know how to swim before you could join a swim team. So there was that missing link for USA Swimming.

“USA Swimming’s goal is to create Olympic medalists. But you can’t become involved unless you know how to swim.”

And it’s that link which local and national organizations hope to use the Olympics to exploit.

“The kids will be watching swimming in the Olympics and maybe they’ll want to be swimmers,” said four-time gold medalist Janet Evans, an LA84 board member. “There’s always a surge in the Olympic sports within a few months of everyone watching the Olympic Games.”

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USA Swimming agrees, believing a surge in the sport’s popularity in minority communities will eventually lead to more and better swimmers reaching the elite level.

“It will be more of a result as opposed to a goal,” Cruzat said. “We know that the more people that are involved in the sport, the better the chances are that more diverse athletes will matriculate up through the programs.

“It’s rare that you’ll have a moral imperative like saving lives through learning to swim align so seamlessly with a strategic imperative [like] growing the base of the sport and making it more inclusive.”

At the LA84 Swim Stadium in the shadow of the Coliseum, Brent and many of the 200 kids who take part in the summer program there already have made the connection. Ana Gillespie, an enthusiastic 13-year-old whose parents are from Central America, rattles off the names of a half-dozen Olympians who have come by the pool to encourage the youngsters. Because of that, she said she would watch the Beijing Games with an eye toward one day competing in the Olympics herself.

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“This is all I have,” she said. “I can’t play any other sport. This is the only sport I’m good at.”

Sitting next to Gillespie, 14-year-old Christian Ortiz, whose family came from Mexico, said his parents bring him to the pool in the summer partly to keep him out of trouble in the streets. But now he competes in swimming and water polo and sees no reason why he should have less of a chance at a college scholarship than a white swimmer.

“If they could do it, we could do it,” he said. “You just have to train.”

Evidence of that came in the pool in Beijing, where Bronx-born Cullen Jones, the first African American to set a world record in swimming, won a gold medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay, following in the wake of Puerto Rican-born Maritza Correira, a silver medalist in the 2004 Athens Games and the first African American female Olympian in swimming.

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Jones’ story is a perfect teaching tool for USA Swimming’s 18-month-old “Make a Splash” initiative. He nearly drowned at a water park when he was 5, so a week later, as a matter of safety, his mother signed him up for swimming lessons. He hasn’t been out of the pool since.

“According to the research, children are more likely to learn to swim if they have awareness and admiration of a competitive swimmer,” said Jones, who is aware kids such as Gillespie and Ortiz are watching him -- just as he was inspired by watching Gary Hall Jr. swim in the 1996 Games. “I hope I can be that role model.”

He already is, said Jalal Hazzard, senior program officer for LA84, who says the program long ago ceased to be simply about preventing drowning.

“The learn-to-swim component is the key part. [But] it introduces the kids to the sport and this whole new world,” he said. “They talk about the Olympics and becoming lifeguards.”

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The program has already produced one Olympian, although to USA Swimming’s chagrin she did not compete for the United States. Anna-Liisa Pold, 17, who was born in Estonia but moved to Los Angeles two years later, competed in the 400-meter individual medley for her homeland, finishing fourth in her heat.

But whether the kids at the LA84 foundation pool see themselves more in the fair-skinned, blond-haired Pold, who came from the neighborhood, or Jones, who grew up across the country, is now almost irrelevant, Hazzard said. That’s because both stories deliver the same message: That could be you.

“The stigma, that’s breaking down now,” he said. “You come here, you see the coaches that we have here, [they’re] all colors and nationalities. And they’re good swimmers. So slowly that’s going to erode to where it’s not going to be that cultural difference where you say, ‘Well, I don’t know any Latino or African Americans who competed in swimming.’

“That’s not true.”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com


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