African Americans and Swimming


Debunking Myths and Reclaiming the Water

Get sensible answers to questions you’ve always had about the water. Learn how the water works, at last. Feel welcome in class. 

Are you afraid in water over your head?

There’s a rich heritage of African and African American swimmers. The latest stars are Simone Manuel, Gold Medalist in the 100 Meter Freestyle at the Rio Olympics and Cullen Jones, who gold-medaled for 2008 and 2012 U.S. Olympic Teams.

Messages like, "We don't swim" circulate in the African American community but it doesn't have to be that way. Adults can set an example for youngsters by learning to swim and teaching others that in fact, everyone can learn.

Buoyancy Myth

There was once a notion that African Americans’ bodies were denser than caucasians’ bodies and that this gave African Americans a disadvantage in learning to swim. This notion has been debunked, but word still hasn’t gotten around.

Even if African Americans’ bodies were denser, it wouldn’t matter: anyone can learn to swim. Few bodies are denser than Fred’s, our retired Oakland, California cop / student who became a volunteer assistant in our classes, and then became a full-fledged instructor. His students look at him and say, “If he can do it, I can do it.” Almost everyone can float, but if you’re like Fred who can’t float even with his lungs as full as birthday balloons, you can still feel safe in water and learn to swim, as he did.

Hair Care Challenges

The incidence of drowning in the African American and Native American populations is disproportionately high.

Yes, we all want to look good. But if you’re struggling in deep water somewhere, hair will not be your concern. Surviving will the the issue of the moment. Knowing how to stay in control, tread water or float calmly on your back will make the difference when it comes to controlling your own destiny.

Think about it. What would you say to braids, or corn rows, or short hair for a few months, or getting your hair done the day after class, so you can become safe in water at last, for the rest of your life? So you can enjoy the water with your kids or grandchildren?

Listen to African Americans, Swimming and Hair

an episode of The Learn To Swim Show

Here, Michelle G., a guest on that show, shares resources she found for African Americans’ hair care. (Some are outdated now.) Pete from New Jersey didn’t take lessons for many years, due to his hair. Then he decided fun and safety were more important. He put his hair into his shirt. He’s a guest on the show, too.

(Both pictured above)