Amid startling statistics showing that over 70 percent of black children in the U.S. cannot swim and are three times more likely to drown than white children, the USA Swimming Foundation is providing free and reduced swimming programs geared toward reducing the risk of childhood drownings.
As a part of the organization’s national “Make a Splash” initiative, held regularly throughout the year, in partnership with Sigma Gamma Rho sorority, a recent water safety event devoted to teaching quality swimming to urban youth was held on Sep. 16 at the Turkey Thicket Recreational Center in northeast D.C.
Maritza McClendon, the first Puerto Rican of African descent to be a member of the U.S. Olympic swimming team as well as the first black American swimmer to set a U.S. and world swimming record, acted as an instructor to the water safety event.
McClendon expressed her passion for getting more black and brown youth involved in swimming.
“At 7 years old I, was diagnosed with scoliosis,” she said. “My father then decided to get me involved with swimming to rectify my body and it was there that I fell in love with swimming and started competing on national levels at the age of 12. Through organizations like USA Swimming, I was able to go on all of my various swimming trips and take part in recreational activities that ultimately shaped my career.
“I believe that some of the barriers for children of color in swimming reside in the fact that they do not see people that look like them doing this sport, the same way they do in basketball with people like LeBron [James] and Kobe [Bryant],” McClendon said. “My goal is to help change that. Swimming is a life skill and the only learned sport that can save your life.”
This year marks the first time the foundation has ever held an in-water instructional session and out-of-water presentation with beginner level swimmers since its creation in 1980, said Nailah Ellis Timberlake, communications manager at USA Swimming.
“The USA Swimming Foundation has partnered with Sigma Gamma Rho sorority and D.C. Parks and Recreation to provide free and reduced swimming lessons to residents,” Timberlake said. “Since our inception we have already assisted more than 4 million children and donated more than 4 million in grant money, as it makes a difference when kids can have someone to look up to.”
Natalie Hinds, who was part of the historic trio of black swimmers who took the top three finishes in a single event at the women’s Division 1 NCAA Championship in 2015 with Olympians Simone Manuel and Lia Neal, also lent her support to the event.
The USA Swimming Foundation has a goal of providing swimming lessons to 1 million children every year, in an effort to affect change within the urban community, advocating for increased swim participation and decreased drowning rates.