Swimming and the Black Spirit

In Water by Ola Idris

When I am in water, I am at peace. I float there, giving my soul a chance to hold the moment, of being one with this vast unknown. When I was younger, I tried to replicate this feeling in swimming pools. I remember begging my mother for a house with a pool so I can just float for hours. I think that’s a little bit of the reason that I never fully committed to my school’s swim team when I tried out. 

Water, one of the most powerful and essential elements to life. The ability to wipe out continents and histories and yet still be a vessel of life, healing and rebirth. Water is just part of us. For most Black people, the relationship with water goes deeper. I have often heard the tag lines ‘Black people can’t swim’ and I always wondered why that stereotype existed. I lived in a country endowed with lakes and rivers, and was surrounded by people and friends who would often go to the country clubs or beaches to do just that … swim. 

As I read about it more, specifically within the context of being Black in the west, I suddenly could understand why. Aside from the fact that disproportionate wealth distribution meant less Black people had access to pools or bodies of water to learn to swim, Black people were allowed to be scared of the water when it was littered with the trauma of coming to the west in the first place. 

Recognizing the connection between water and life, I wondered if my friends that swam took time to reflect on their relationship with water and swimming, especially those that did it competitively. With this wandering thought in mind, I embarked on finding Black/African competitive swimmers and conversation about finding some answers to their relationship with water. Yes, it’s corny, but I ended up catching up with two old friends, and met two brilliant swimmers who articulated that exchange better than I could. 

Introducing Jamal, Joshua, Jamila and Dr. Asherah and their story with water

Jamal Hill is a Black professional swimmer from Inglewood, Los Angeles, born and raised. He first met swimming through ‘mommy and me’ classes when he was really young and stuck with the sport through middle and high school. I asked him when he saw himself want to take swimming from being his passion to his profession, and he shared with me the story that pointed to how heartbreak shows one what they really love. When he was 21, he performed poorly in his conference championships at college and the hurt he experienced helped highlight to him just how much love he had for the swimming experience, so he dropped out of college and moved back to California to chase his dreams in the city of dreams. 

Since then, he has participated in multiple international teams and has become an international medalist, with initial plans on attending and competing in the 2020 International Paralympic Games. With the games being postponed due to COVID -19, Jamal has seen the silver lining in this blessing. It has given him a chance to rest and train more, even though they aren’t in full swing just yet. Jamal is using this chance to build a stronger foundation, and support members of the community with investing in themselves. 

When asked about being Black within the sport. He affirmed, “I am a Black man, I am a tall attractive man and funny but sometimes I am the only Black guy that it can almost feel like a caricature”. Being himself meant that sometimes it was like being the life of the party but a fly on the wall. So although it’s not pertinent, he could still feel that ‘watched eye’. He went on to call attention to how Black women in the profession have it even worse so he makes a point to support them. 

Overall though, in his every day, he doesn’t spend too much time thinking about that especially because he lives within his community. He is focused on the internal experience of being a professional swimmer. “It brings me a sense of fulfillment and you get the chance to impact a lot of lives, and because very few people have set down this path, I just keep going.” He also spends time focusing on his growth within the industry and reminding himself “I am not this body”

When Jamal was 10 years old, he was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth Syndex, a genetic disease affecting his extremities and causing him to be partially paralyzed for years. He never actually spoke about it until after he dropped out of college to pursue swimming. He ended up having to come out and tell the coach about it when he started to go pro. He shared with me how feeling like he had to ‘announce’ that he has a disability, especially with the stigma entangled with that in Black communities, was a hard part he had to overcome. He had to come into terms with it himself first and reconcile his physical body with how his mind felt, which felt even harder. Once he did, he felt like he unlocked a door where his dreams could come true and worked to achieve it. 

When I asked my ‘big question’ it seemed among these bunch: Do you feel like you have a personal relationship with water? 

Jamal laughed and called his relationship with water ‘his longest and most committed relationship. “We are old friends, the water and I”. He spoke about how the water helped him practice the simple skills and mastery, and once he opened himself up to the experience of doing something so consistently, he was able to see how many opportunities open themselves up to him and others around him. Swimming helped him overcome his diagnosis as well. Coming out about the diagnosis to his coach helped him in just better aligning his goals and skills. 

Jamal released a short documentary about his life and experience called Swim Up Hill that you can find here: https://vimeo.com/345120773 

He now spends his time teaching and practicing when he can, with the COVID restrictions. He is even hosting online swim lessons about healing and working with the water to stay on the move despite the circumstances. 

It was amazing to speak and listen to Jamal speak about his passion, his love of swimming and the courage of chasing your dream despite your fears and the obstacles that may seem to stand in your way. Purpose is a powerful motivator, and so once you find what feeds that, whichever element, chase it. 

I grew up in Uganda, and when I was in middle school our school started a swimming team and came up with programs to support students who wanted to pursue swimming. Like I mentioned earlier, I would rather float there than race and there was definitely an element of not wanting to be in swimsuit day in and day out. However as chance would have it, two people I knew that became part of the swim team actually ended up qualifying to represent the Ugandan teams at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic games. 

Jamila Lunkuse’s dance with swimming was almost accidental according to her. When we were in kindergarten, we had swimming lessons as part of the school activities, and she says she was petrified. She was absolutely terrified of being in the water and claimed that she just couldn’t swim. She ended up falling once in the shallow end with a friend and when she was crying out and they told her to just stand up… it was then she realized she could overcome her fear. She became more serious about swimming in middle school. It started because she wasn’t really interested in other extra-curriculars, so she chose to stick with swimming. It was her way of breaking outside the box, to socialize and she ended up creating a community out of the swimming team and the people around the swim meets.

Jamila moved to the United Kingdom in 2010 for high school. She started swimming competitively in her new boarding school in the UK. The school was extremely tough, and the training was even tougher. “We had to wake up at 4 in the morning for training, and then had another session of training again after school” This was done on top of school and mandatory gym and weights sessions usually 3 times a week. However, her experience was much more enlightening and fun because her boarding house was filled with all swimmers. Everyone’s schedule was synced, and her friends also did what she loved so Jamila found it easier to keep up with it. 

Her first trip to the Olympics was in 2012 in London, and Jamila recalls as good. “A little surreal but I just remember it being really good vibes.” Jamila was so young that she said the most memorable parts were being in the dining area and just mingling with everyone. The swimming part was just a small part that just felt normal then. 

When she joined university, to do Marketing and Business, she stuck with the swim team for 6 months before she decided to quit. She felt that her team was already in a working dynamic which often left her out of place. Once she actually did quit, she got really excited because she could finally have some kind of freedom. She took the time to understand herself so much better and how swimming had helped her grow. “Swimming was such a result-oriented sport that I was always pushing myself to be better, so leaving the pool gave me a chance to discover what I am into outside the pool”. 

Jamila thanks swimming and her personal relationship with water for her friends and community. She recognized how many friendships that were true and genuine came to her from swimming, from Uganda to the UK. She also recognized how she unconsciously tied external validation to results and comments from her coach about her progress. She knew that there are fundamentals that swimming taught her but she was grateful for the chance to be able to do things that she genuinely also enjoys. “I enjoy reading and I love nature. I love taking pictures of nature and taking early morning walks or working out.” 

When asked about her 2016 Olympic experience, Jamila claims that she doesn’t really remember it either like that, because you’re so focused on being there and in this new country that it just ‘always feels surreal’. It was really fun to explore Brazil but, in some ways, she was still so young to get the full experience. 

Overall, her biggest lesson that she learnt through swimming is patience. Nothing comes fast. “You need to put in the hours and the work and be patient. You could be training for two months and hitting the same time and then you get a personal best a day later.” She learnt to be patient about the journey, going with the flow and trusting the process. 

A fun fact I learnt catching up with Jamila was that she created music playlists and has a playlist for each competition. She still will listen to a song and remember a certain competition or a race. I thought it was so interesting, just in general our connection with music and how we use it as time stamps for our memories. I love its contribution to the whole experience that bonds with water.

Dr. Asherah Allen is a Black American woman who is an assistant professor of Kinesiology at an HBCU, North Carolina Central University. She is a Black American Woman, and she proudly says that it’s how she perceives social issues, and how she interacts with her family, her friends and her community. She teaches through this lens as well and most especially teaches her students about wellness practices and aquatics.

Swimming came to her and her sister very early, as early as 4/5 years old. Although she remembers being nervous and scared of the water, as soon as she started, her interest and love for swimming grew. She started competitively swimming when she was 11 at her local YMCA and slowly developed her skills. Her community kept supporting her, her cousins and the people she looked up to were all swimmers and lifeguards and so she kept going at it. Lifeguarding had felt like an almost natural transition for her and she still maintains that it is an integral part of her life. She has been certified as a lifeguard for about 20 years now.

Aside from lifeguarding, she recognized how much she loves teaching and sharing her skills and passions. She knew she wanted to go to college, and not any college, an HBCU. At the time there were only 4 that had swim teams. She ended up attending Albany State University which allowed her to be close to home within Georgia. She majored in Health and Physical Education and although they didn’t have a swim team, she continued to swim and lifeguard. When she realized she could combine teaching, lifeguarding and swimming she decided to continue and pursue a master’s and eventually a PhD within the field. She hadn’t even intended to get a PhD, but the support of her mentors and her community pushed her to pursue it. She was able to get both her Masters and PhD in 4 years, which is truly an incredible feat. Through her education at Auburn University, she was able to do research and became more aware of how the disparities were very present in the drowning rates, around the world. Black people were largely dying more in drowning rates and were less likely to know how to swim. This increased her drive and pushed her to create black girl swim, her blog.

I wanted to show that there are Black people that know how to swim and are swimming at all levels. For recreation and otherwise, we are at the beaches and we are surfing and jet skiing and have honestly had the connection to that water for centuries, especially here in America.”

With Slavery, the disconnection from where we really come from, the systemic oppression and racism that is happening that is causing the disconnection and in this case with water being used as punishment, we think we can’t do these things and we cant have that connection with the water. I wanted to share my point of view as a Black girl who swims and that’s where the blog was born.

Her unique network of Black men and women within academia, and her community, allows her to create and establish a space for Black people to thrive in this aquatic space. She is part of Diversity in aquatics which is a larger umbrella organization that sheds light to the disparities in aquatics and the need to bring diversity to it. She acts as a council chair and is part of the leadership team and so it’s wonderful to see it come together and push for the change that is needed.

Her personal relationship with water is multifaceted because she was always enamoured with water. She could spend hours letting it flow down her arms and she loves being in bodies of water. She understood its power almost.

My conversation with Dr. Asherah made me reflect so deeply about how healing the water can be to trauma and why it’s important to continue pushing for more diversity in aquatic sports and to motivate our own to overcome any fears they have when it comes to swimming. It also reminded me of the rest of the quote on her blog. “Every great dream begins with a dreamer” … “Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world” – Harriet Tubman.

You can check out more about Dr. Asherah Allen and her blog and the rest of the absolutely magnificent work she is doing at http://www.asherahallen.com/

The process of writing this article was transformative because it gave me the opportunity to reach out to old friends and have wonderful conversations about where they are now and where their relationship with water has led them. Although I grew up with both Jamila and Joshua, I was friends with Joshua up until 2014, when we attended the same high school. I remember being excited to hear of him going to the Olympics. I had seen glimpses of how much work his team and knew of the discipline that swimming had helped him keep. So I was eager to hear of the story of his relationship with water now and beyond the Olympics.

Joshua Tibatemwa-Ekirikubinza is a Ugandan software engineer at Twitter that describes his relationship with swimming as something he ‘has had longer with than without’. He took to swimming to build his own space and to come into terms with his physical body as well. When Joshua was swimming in Uganda, most swim teams and areas were filled with expats kids and students who went to international schools but he has seen how with time, it has grown and changed. “I am genuinely shocked to walk into swim meets now and see so many Ugandan and Black kids” He remarks.

He doesn’t think that any two swimming experiences are typically similar but specifically when it came to feeling ‘Black’ when swimming, he only really felt it outside of his home.“I think that within Uganda, especially within our school, there were a good amount of Black kids who participated in the sport but when I would go for international swim meets or the larger ones even in East Africa, it was people from all over the world and then there you feel the weight of your ‘Blackness’.” He recalled when he visited Scotland for the commonwealth games, and he bumped into another fellow from Lithuania who attempted to guess his sport and guessed everything but failed to mention swimming. When Joshua finally corrected him, he was shocked that he could be swimming. He attributes that to the fact that people just don’t attribute Black people with swimming. “When you think of the greats, you think Phelps, or you think of Ledecky.”  There is no Black face to swimming, which results in most of our idols to be white. “Simone is coming up and it’s great to see but I didn’t necessarily have a Black swimming Idol and so we learnt to look at the abstract and look beyond that, but you recognize the balance of context and looking up to people.”

Joshua explains to me that he tends to admire sportsmen that are hardworking, that chase perfection within them “like Lebron James and Michael Phelps. Really what it is, is the ability to rise to the challenge.”  He attributed to Michael Jordan being hard work personified, so one just translates it to swimming and applies the principles. “I think that’s how you find the motivation to find the power within yourself to rise to the challenge, especially in something niche like swimming.”

Joshua continued competitive swimming in college, where he points out, it felt like it takes double the work to be where the rest of his colleagues were because to be one of the few Black swimmers, that level meant that you had to be really good to do it. The support of his family while still allowing him to explore it for himself, taking more of a hands-off approach, helped him grow with the sport. 

2016 was a surreal experience to him, because although going to the Olympics was great, to him it was really a culmination of the hard work he had been putting in. “It’s really just two weeks of your life that are supposed to define how people interact with you for the rest of your life” but really the value is in the journey of getting to the two weeks in Joshua’s opinion. “If you’re writing a story, the ending is great, but it only makes sense if you have all the in between, each mile holds value.” Even the fact that he got to be the flag bearer, making the experience more humbling, but it reminded him that everyone there was also humbled to be carrying their own flag.

Personally, water has always been his haven, away from soccer which was all the rage back in Uganda. “I go to the water to feel, I just love it, it’s like a little escape.” He loves the ocean for the same reason, “It’s so big, you know there are miles and miles of water and it centers you and reminds you of how small you are in the grand scheme of things’.” I resonated with Joshua greatly, for I knew of my own experiences with being in large bodies of water, and the feeling of being suspended in it. He channels this feeling whenever he has to face a challenge, where he can see the bigger picture.

Have the ability to take every day the way it comes,” Joshua shares as his greatest lesson from swimming. To him that’s how he is able to focus on doing all the things he is doing at the time, to be consistent. One bad day does not mean a bad week, so if you show up every day saying it will be a good day then it will be. The second gem Joshua dropped was “you need to understand your why.” “The reason you do something will determine why you stick with it that pushes you through those harder times.” 

Understanding that we are choosing to write our stories, and why we are sharing those stories helps us in pushing yourself beyond challenges. This means that you grow through discomfort and pain. Swimming showed him that he had to go through discomfort for growth, but that it would only come as a result that you need to get from point A to point B and the discomfort isn’t the destination itself. Once you feel like you can do one difficult thing then you can get through other difficult things.

Exploring these brilliant people’s journeys allowed me to open up and hear these new stories and further really appreciate the power that water has. It was interesting to me to watch how these individuals related to water in the spiritual sense. Dr. Asherah Allen spoke of how fear of swimming and drowning that was present in Black communities in North America was holding them back from reclaiming the relationship with water. 

I hope that with us seeing and recognizing more of this power within ourselves, we appreciate the balance that water gives us and how it helps us grow. This can be within and outside the competitive side of swimming. These individuals showed us that it wasn’t the competition alone that drove their relationship with water but the need to strive for better and to understand the same question we all aim to answer, “Who am I?” and how the water held elements of the answer.