Updated: Nov 25, 2021
Written By: Dr. Tiffany Monique Quash
I love being Black. I love being a Black Womxn. I love being a Black Womxn who is a Swim Coach and a trained Academic (someone with a PhD). In an athletic community that is often reliant upon making time trials and the names of the coaches that brought those swimmers to their success, I am aware of the lack of Black Womxn either in the pool or on the deck. As the foundation for this conversation, when I use the word “Black”, I am using this inclusively as individuals who represent the African Diaspora. When using the word “Womxn”, I am refocusing this conversation on the experience of self-identified Womxn and away from men. Overall, this piece is a conversation embedded in the spirit of Black Womxnist Thought and based on my experience as a Black Womxn Swim Coach. I am an individual who can coexist in the world as an academic praised from Indiana University (aka the home of James Edward "Doc" Counsilman) and a swim coach (recently with Nation’s Capital Swim Club); I am a proud pracademic. This is a call to action for the swimming world to challenge, change, and listen to the experiences of Black Womxn Swimmers/Coaches. I cannot and will never speak on behalf of all Black Womxn, as we are not each other. What I can offer to you (the reader) is my experience sprinkled with empirical evidence. I unapologetically take this stance in hopes to call in our sport (all levels) and those in leadership.
Rather than recite the knowledge of the racial disparity related to drownings first, I think it is important to reposition the history of drownings and acknowledge that there remains a stigma connected to Black people being unable to swim. This stigma is rooted in historical and generational trauma experienced by and during the Trans-Atlantic enslavement of Black people to the present. Before enslavement, it was black and brown bodies who developed swimming, were avid swimmers, and participated in swimming as a leisure activity and a way of life. This is something that I address in my TEDx talk, seen in artifacts, and written by other researchers. Swimming was developed by black and brown bodies throughout the world and there remains minimal recognition for our achievements in aquatic sports. If one fast forwards to the current predicament, we begin to see that black and brown bodies are being forced out of aquatic spaces.
Prior to and during the Covid-19 pandemic, videos emerged of Black bodies being physically and verbally assaulted by white bodies in pool spaces without a cause. An example is a white hotel employee calling the police on a Black family who were guests staying at a Hampton Inn July 2020. Wearing my “academic hat” with a focus in leisure behavior, I am forced to say, “no wonder more Black people do not want to swim! One cannot even enjoy a dip in the pool with their family members”. But let’s bring this conversation closer to home and relate it to competitive swimming.
In February 2019, Jaylan Butler, a Black Swimmer from Eastern Illinois University was returning home from a championship meet with his team. The bus stopped so that the swimmers could “stretch their legs” and Butler took a photo for his team’s social media account, but when he turned around several police cars pulled up to him. Butler dropped to his knees, put his hands up, and was forced to the ground by the officers — with one holding a gun to his head and threatening to “blow his fu–ing head off” if he moved”. If this was your swimmer, what would you have done? If you saw this happen to your colleague, what steps would you take?
In my experience as a Black Queer Womxn in this world, society has forced me to be conscious of overt and covert racism, sexism, and heterosexism. In our swimming world, it remains dominated by white, cisgender, straight, men, and I am forced to navigate my voice and success in a community that is not represented by people who look like me. There remains a lack of Black Womxn in positions of leadership positions. So how do we change our sport and leadership?
Outside of Learn-to-Swim programs, we must acknowledge the narrative of Black Womxn coaches and swimmers. We must know and never forget the names of Janelle Atkinson (Olympic Swimmer and Coach), Natalie Hinds (Olympic Swimmer), Lia Neal (Olympic Swimmer), Simone Manuel (Olympic Swimmer), Melissa Wilborn (Olympic Swimmer Trial Qualifier and Coach), Leah Stancil (Olympic Swimmer and Olympic Coach), Maritza Correia McClendon (Olympic Swimmer), G. Nadine Johnson-Jesionek (USA Swim Coach), and others. All of our experiences are not the same, but when was the last time you asked to hear our collective experiences as a part of the collective memory in this sport. Based on my research, the experiences of Black Womxn are often overlooked/silenced and focused around Black men and/or other men in our sport. Our experience matters and continues to help re-shape this sport.
Connect with Diversity In Aquatics and the International Water Safety Foundation. Unlike other organizations, Diversity In Aquatics and the International Water Safety Foundation was founded and has individuals in leadership who are current/former coaches and academics. During a time where organizations/clubs are trying to figure out how to be inclusive and not appear to be performative to marginalized communities, I am challenging you to join and participate with these organizations. Attend the Diversity In Aquatics Convention in February 2022 or participate in a Tread-A-Thon® with the International Water Safety Foundation. Do more for our swimming community.
Lastly, check your privilege before stepping on the deck. Know that this country is hurting. Our swimmers can see how we (their leaders) are reacting to what is going on in the world. Our swimming world is more than about “leveling up” athletically, it is about being a good human.
I was on a professional development trip many years ago and I was asked what I wanted to do with my career. My response was that I wanted to complete my doctoral program and would like to begin establishing a team. This individual said to me that I needed to choose either being an academic or a swim coach, but I could not do both. I often ask myself, “I wonder how different this conversation would have been if I were a man?”. This thought is often followed by, “I never received the tools to begin the process of establishing my ideal team after that statement was made”. This is an example of people who are gatekeepers in our sport and how information is not always available to all. That incident (and many others) is a constant reminder that I have to force myself to remain visible on the deck (and in higher education) to my colleagues, swimmers, and the parent(s)/guardian(s).
To recap, the Centers for Disease Control Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report states that between “1999–2019, a total of 81,947 unintentional drowning deaths occurred in the United States”. The report continues by verifying that the “rate per 100,000 among [American Indian or Alaska Native] persons (2.5) and Black [defined in this study as Black or African-American] persons (1.8) was higher than among all other racial/ethnic groups and was 2.0 and 1.5 times higher than among [w]hite persons (1.2)”. Drowning death rates are associated with persistent and concerning racial/ethnic disparities. Not all experiences of Black People and Black Womxn are focused on a narrative of despair and death. There is a beautiful history associated with Black People as avid swimmers. Black Womxn are amazing coaches and swimmers! Lastly, be about something and make a social difference in our swimming community beyond the pool NOW, because “Learning how to Swim is a Human Right”.
Tiffany Monique Quash, Ph.D. describes her mission in life as: “Learning to Swim is a Human Right.” Her research focuses on the intersectionality of race, gender, class, and one’s historical relationships with swimming. As a former collegiate swimmer and Nation's Capital Swim Coach, Dr. Quash works to improve the perceptions of one’s Black body in an aquatic space by listening to the stories of other Black Womxn Swimmers. Outside of her research and publications, Dr. Quash serves as the Director of Operations with the International Water Safety Foundation (IWSF), a non-profit organization. The purpose of IWSF is: “raising drowning awareness while bringing basic swimming, water safety, and safe rescue skills to children”. She is also the Qualitative/Survey Research Methodologist for American University's Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning.