By J.P. Lawrence
Diversity in the pool can be a matter of life and death. A report released by USA Swimming said 66 percent of Asian-Americans did not know how to swim, compared to 40 percent of Caucasians.
The report is the first by USA Swimming to focus on the sport’s inclusion of Asian-Americans. It identifies obstacles for minority groups, and also highlighted how more and more Asian-Americans are entering the pool.
Some of the key barriers to swimming among minorities include fear on behalf of the swimmer and parent, and the influence of parents and role models, according to the report.
In Vickery Meadow, a small north Dallas neighborhood where one can hear up to 17 languages due to a thriving refugee community, the YMCA is trying to help children survive a potential fall into the in-ground pools common to apartment complexes in Texas.
An average of 3,536 Americans drown each year, according to the Center for Disease Control. One in five of those who drown are young children.
The YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas provides free water survival lessons to children in low-income apartment complexes and under-served communities.
Refugees in Vickery Meadow, primarily from southeast Asia, have given the neighborhood the moniker of a Mini-United Nations. The YMCA began its swimming outreach to Vickery Meadow in 2010, but soon ran into cultural barriers. Parents who didn’t swim when they were young did not always think their own children should learn to swim.
Research shows if a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13 percent chance that their child will learn.
“Usually if the parents don’t know how to swim, it permeates across generations,” said Jennifer Pewitt, Associate Vice President of Aquatics & Special Needs at YMCA of Metropolitan Dallas.
Another obstacle at Vickery Meadow: a lack of swim shorts. Many of the children came from small rural villages in Southeast Asia, Pewitt said, and as a result they did not have the swim gear required to swim in America.
“Oftentimes the only swimming they did was in creeks and rivers, and usually they swam naked,” Pewitt said.
Dubbed the Safety Around Water Initiative, the program now provides swimwear, Pewitt said. In 2016, the program taught 3,552 children at 82 apartment complexes.
The program was too late for one person at Vickery Meadow however. A young refugee drowned over Memorial Day weekend in 2010, shortly before the program began, Pewitt said.
The USA Swimming report also highlighted progress in inclusion of Asian-Americans in competitive swimming.
The percentage of swimmers who are Asian is closer to the national average than the African-American and Hispanic populations, said Mariejo Truex, director of Swimming USA’s Diversity & Inclusion Team.
In fact, the percentage of swimmers who are Asian doubled from 3.2 percent in 2003 to 6.4 percent in 2016, Truex said.
Which bodes well for representation in the sport, Asian-Americans are just 5.7 percent of the U.S. population according to the 2010 census.
Previous cultural inclusion reports by USA Swimming found dismal rates of African-American and Hispanic participation. America is 13 percent African-American, but only 1 percent of swimmers are African-American. Similarly, 17 percent of Americans are Hispanic but only 2.9 percent of swimmers are.
“Let’s be honest: it’s an expensive sport,” says Paul Wallace, a Dallas-area swimming coach and member of a USA Swimming Task Force to help find ways to promote diversity in the sport.
Wallace grew up in a poor area of San Antonio and only started competing in swimming as a junior in high school after missing football tryouts. Better marketing would help minority swimmers overcome their fear of swimming, he said.
“I have coached children that refused to put their head in the water because their grandmother told them that if water got in their ear, their soul would be taken,” Wallace said. “That is what I would consider generational drowning philosophy, and there was nothing I could do to break that belief.”
Prominent Asian-American swimmers such as Nathan Adrian and Lia Neal, both Olympians, may be able to serve as role models for young swimmers, said Truex, who is Asian-American and learned to swim when her immigrant parents found the sport for her.
“If they think, ‘that guy is in the Olympics, I can do that,’ maybe they won’t leave the sport or stop at a certain level,” Truex said.
Hannah Feng, a nationally-ranked Chinese-American swimmer from San Antonio said she looks up to Olympians like Adrian, but fellow Asians who are her peers inspire her the most. In particular, she cited as inspiration two Chinese swimmers in a grade above her who are both headed to Stanford.
Feng, a junior at Ronald Reagan High School in San Antonio is currently ranked 6th in Texas, and ranked in the top-100 in the country.
Swimming takes time and patience. For those in the pool who wonder if the effort is worth it, a role model can keep them moving.
“Just seeing one name or one person,” Feng said, “who has had a similar path as you is motivation enough.”
Featured photo from usaswimming.org.