Black swim programs battle cross-currents of history — and Covid-19

Mahogany Mermaids upend decades of stereotypes by teaching Black adults to swim, but Charlotte’s minority youth swim team is fighting to stay afloat

Growing up in the 1960s on Charlotte’s north side, Nadine Ford was ignorant of the notion that — as she puts it now — “Black people don’t swim.”

Public swimming pools were a flashpoint for desegregation, particularly in the South. In 1960, the then-chairman of Charlotte’s parks commission was quoted saying that “of all public facilities, swimming pools put the tolerance of the white people to the test,” arguing that pools had to be closed to Black swimmers to protect them from angry whites.

“Everybody in my family swam,” Ford recalls. “When I went to (the public pool at) Double Oaks, all the people there were Black. When I went to Girl Scout camp, when I went to Camp Thunderbird, the Black people there — they all swam.”

Decades later, Ford, now 58, is the founder and leader of Mahogany Mermaids, a two-year-old U.S. Masters Swimming team that focuses on teaching Black women (and some men) to swim for survival, enjoyment and fitness. The program has won national attention and grassroots financial support as Ford considers how to expand further into the Black community.

It’s a remarkable success story amid a pandemic that has had hugely negative social and economic effects on Black and other minority communities. And it’s a story that contrasts sharply with that of Charlotte’s Black-focused youth swim program, Queen City Dolphins (QCD).

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Battered by back-and-forth shutdowns, remote schooling and repeated closings at their publicly owned home pool, QCD — for 16 years, the city’s only year-round youth swim program for children from minority and low-income families — is fighting for survival. The battle exposes the fragility of the team’s progress against decades of racism and stereotyping about Black swimming.

Many QCD parents pulled their children from the swim program last spring during the pandemic’s initial lockdowns and have not returned. Cratering revenues put the club on shaky financial ground, to the point that founder Rodney Sellars considered a complete shutdown. He said the club survived only thanks to a loan that came in the third round of the government’s Paycheck Protection Program.

Sellars, 55, a Winston-Salem native, founded QCD in 2005 with a focus on teaching the sport to Black kids. While other local year-round swim teams focus on qualifying top athletes for competitive sectional and national meets, Sellars and his staff worry about the baseline experience for all the swimmers: “Teach ’em to swim all four strokes, maybe make a state cut,” he said, adding that with the right grades, swimming can be a boost that gets his athletes into college.

A 2017 USA Swimming study found that 64% of Black children had low to no swimming ability. A 2014 Centers for Disease Control report said an 11-year-old Black child was 10 times more likely to drown than a white child of the same age.

Sellars was a swimmer and diver in his college days at UNC Charlotte and later a founding staff member at the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center (MCAC), where he worked until his retirement in 2019.

On a recent 40-degree night, a dozen QCD swimmers ranging in age from 8 to 17 warmed up with 400 yards of individual medley under the winter tent that covers the pool at Fairmeadows Swim & Racquet Club in south Charlotte.

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Sellars watched, calling out instructions and acknowledging that this was an improvement over last spring, when the initial three-month pandemic shutdown pushed everyone completely out of the water.

“I thought it was over,” he said. In February 2020, QCD was 45 swimmers strong. But by May, just eight kids were showing up for dry-land workouts. “I thought we were going to have to go out of business.”

When pools re-opened in June, attendance rebounded to about 25 swimmers and reprieve came from the PPP loan.  But the team’s status remains shaky, and the abrupt January shutdown of the MCAC — the Dolphins’ home pool — forced the remaining Dolphins athletes to begin their winter weeknight practices at 8 p.m. at Fairmeadows.

Like Sellars, the Mermaids’ Ford swam, albeit recreationally, in her college days at N.C. State and UNCC but drifted away from the sport until returning to train for a 2014 triathlon.

That sparked a mission: get back in the pool regularly and do it with her girlfriends. Some of them, she discovered, didn’t even know how to swim.

“In order (for them) to learn it, I had to teach it,” said Ford, a senior environmental specialist with the Mecklenburg County Solid Waste Department. She studied YouTube coaching videos and started shadowing local swim coaches like Sellars, Doug Miller, Heather Hageman and Amy Monroe. She got certified as an Adult Learn to Swim (ALTS) instructor and a masters coach.

By 2019, Ford’s loose group had become a movement with a purpose: “trying to get Black folks swimming.” That year, Mahogany Mermaids affiliated as a club under U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS).

Now, Ford and eight other coaches guide athletes through the full swimming journey. There are Mermaids at all different swim stages, from putting their faces in the water and blowing bubbles to treading water for a minute and swimming 25 yards (the American Red Cross standard for adult water safety) through learning the four basic strokes to racing techniques like flip turns.

NBC Nightly News did a story on the Mermaids last fall and the club is seeking a $5,000 grant that would fund additional programs.

Sellars and Ford both have support from within the Charlotte swim community. Aquatic Team of Mecklenburg (ATOM) head coach Shaynah Jerrell is sharing the lanes her club rents at Fairmeadows so the Dolphins can stay in the water while the MCAC is closed. (The county said this week that the MCAC will reopen on March 1.)

Ford wants the Mermaids to upend decades of stereotypes about Blacks and swimming that she believes many Blacks have internalized.

“I want Black people to understand that Jim Crow and post-Jim Crow is a blip (in our aquatic story),” Ford said. “It’s a tragic blip, but we need to focus on what happened before Jim Crow … when we were aquatic people. Wherever we were as indigenous people, we swam. It wasn’t until we were disconnected from the pools that we became disconnected from that part of our lives.”

Tim Whitmire is contributing editor of The Charlotte Ledger.

This article was printed under a Facebook journalism initiative that includes WFAE, QCity Metro, The Charlotte Ledger and La Noticia.

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