The 31 annual Black History Invitational Swim Meet took place last weekend in the District, as the unique event continued to expand its mission to offer an alternative activity to African-American children.
The meet was cofounded in 1987 in honor of Black History Month by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) and the United Black Fund (UBF), then headed by William Rumsey and Calvin Rolark respectively. Today, both agencies continue to support the event.
This year’s theme was “Rise Above the Wave.”
The meet has grown from a local competition to one now hailed by USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport of swimming. It is the largest minority swim competition.
“Dr. Calvin Rolark and Dr. William Rumsey began this historic swim meet with the hope that it would nourish self-reliance, the spirit of fair play, the willingness to try in youth and parents,” said United Black Fund President Barry LeNoir.
The meet is also a part of the D.C. One Fund Campaign.
LeNoir said the meet aims to open doors for young athletes, not just for securing summer jobs as lifeguards, but as champions of the sport.
“We have new hopes at the UBF,” Lenoir said. “We want a world champion from the young Washingtonians that call themselves the D.C. Wave.”
The Black History Swim meet is a USA Swimming-sanctioned event. The city’s year-round competitive squad, D.C. Wave Swim Team, is also a registered team with USA Swimming and participated in the event.
“We want to create a pathway to the Olympics,” said DRP Aquatics Director Tyrell Lashley. “Our athletes that swim and perform well, their times can count for whatever progression they have.
“Swimming is a priority for this government,” Lashley said. “The resources that have been provided to this agency to provide support and opportunities for our young people to take part in the sportsmanship and citizenship have been phenomenal.”
He said with the new resources the agency has seen participation triple in the District’s competitive summer swim teams, record breaking pool attendance and has achieved zero drownings in the city’s public pools in the past two years.
The D.C. Wave Swim Team, which the agency once though about cutting in half, grew from 100 swimmers to 250 swimmers with a waitlist of over 100.
According to DPR, D.C. has the nation’s largest public pools per capita.
The Black History Swim Meet has already seen one Olympic champion. 2008 gold-medalist Cullen Jones competed in the meet in 1997 and 1998, where he ranked last in his final event.
During the three-day meet, athletes ranging from ages 5-18 competed in standard swim event such as the individual medley, freestyle, butterfly, relays and back and breast strokes. More than 1,000 competitors attended this year with teams from Los Angeles, Atlanta, Detroit, Cleveland, New York and other cities across the country.
Manny Banks, a diversity manager with USA Swimming, said the Black History Meet makes his job easier. Responsible for drawing participants from all backgrounds to the sport on a national level, Banks said the meet is important to expanding its diversity.
“In today’s climate, conversation is important, conversation on inclusion are important, and that conversation happens at the Black History Swim Meet,” he said.
Lashley recalled how, in 1987, black children couldn’t swim in the same swim meets as white children.
“The agency had no choice but to create its own,” Lashley said.
Lenoir and other organizers want to continue to “fill in the gaps.” They assure efforts will be concentrated in the District’s most vulnerable communities.
“DPR is undertaking a special initiative to engage youth in Wards 7 and 8 in swimming programs,” LeNoir said. “The kids who have the greatest need were the kids who caused Calvin and Bill to come up with this idea.”