As part of the 4×100-meter freestyle relay team that won gold at the Beijing Olympics, Cullen Jones may have given a needed boost to USA Swimming’s campaign to attract more minorities to the sport.
Cullen was the only African-American swimmer on the 43-member Olympic team; and John Cruzat, national diversity specialist for USA Swimming, the national body governing competitive swimming in the United States, hopes Jones’s gold will make a big splash in minority communities.
More than for reasons of health and educational benefit, “inclusion” is a matter of survival when it comes to minorities and swimming, Cruzat says. Industry statistics show that African-American and other minority children drown at a higher rate than white children. In partnership with swim clubs and recreational centers, USA Swimming launched a national “Make a Splash” campaign to make swimming accessible and affordable in urban areas.
“We are working with our leadership to promote the benefits of diversity and inclusion in our organization and the sport,” says Cruzat, an African-American who began swimming as a child in Chicago. “Diversity is going to allow the sport and organization to grow in the emerging demographics. The sport has become very homogenous, and while it will continue to grow in white communities, that growth will eventually be tapped out.”
Cruzat is banking on his own experience as a swimmer, as well as that of Anthony Ervin, the first African-American swimmer to win gold in the 2000 Sidney Olympics, to help make his case. Ervin is scheduled to participate in the “Make a Splash” campaign and in USA Swimming’s Golden Goggles Annual Gala in New York this month. “Our focus is going to be working together with recreational centers like the Boys & Girls Clubs and the YMCA,” Cruzat says. “In our pilot program in Atlanta, we formed a partnership with the Atlanta Falcons to donate money to the sport.”
To date, the Atlanta program has received $1million from sponsors and corporate clients for pool time and other local activities. The organization’s goal is to raise the presence of minorities to 5 percent of the total participation in the sport from its current 1 percent.
“Swimming can also be an educational tool for students to receive scholarships for college and the key to swimming professionally,” Cruzat says. “But first, we have to reassure families in the metro areas that learning to swim is a matter of survival on a planet that is seventy percent covered by water.”
In the New York area, Make a Splash is partnering with the office of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Parks and Recreation. “Our involvement is not solely to bring swimming to communities of color, but to make sure that every child in New York City is able to swim by the time they reach second grade,” says Nancy Barthold, assistant commissioner for recreation and programming in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
The city has 12 public indoor pools and 14 other locations where residents can learn to swim during the fall and winter months, Barthold notes.
For Offutt Porter, swimming coach for the Mt. Vernon, N.Y., YMCA Water Dragons, USA Swimming’s diversity push could not have come at a better time. “Every summer, African-American and other minority children go to water parks, on vacation to the beach, or lakes to get away, with many of them not knowing how to swim,” he says. “It all boils down to access and affordability to the sport. Swimming, like golf and tennis, is a country club activity and that limits access in the inner cities.”