Written By: Emma GwanNulla
As a child my parents found it very important for my siblings and I to take up different hobbies and sports. After starting off with dance and moving on to playing soccer I decided to take up swimming. I loved the times I spent swimming with my father on our family vacations and I thought swimming competitively would be fun. I started swimming when I was 8 years old on the Hannibal Hurricanes Swim Team in Hannibal Missouri. Then I swam when I moved to North Carolina for Smoky Mountain Aquatic Club. Then when I moved to Georgia where I swam competitively for the Columbus Hurricanes. I was also able to swim on two High School teams, Brookstone High School Swim team as well as Tuscola High School swim team. By now you’re probably wondering why I moved so much. It was because of my father’s job. All of the places I lived were fairly small and lacked ethnic diversity. Moving from different states came with different challenges. For example finding friends and being okay with leaving my old ones. Swimming for so long on so many different levels and so many different teams I have learned so much about myself and the swim community.
The longer I swam the more I realized the lack of diversity in the sport. On all of my teams I was either the only Black person on my team or one of two Black people on my team. I thought that was because of the town I lived in. Then, on the pool deck and observing other teams, the majority of the swimmers were white and middle/upper middle class. As I got older I realized just how much my team and I would have benefited from an increase in ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity. I remember one time, when I first started swimming, I was standing behind the blocks and I told the girl beside me “good luck”. Her response was sorry I can’t talk to you because you're Black. I felt sad for two reasons. The first was why would she say that to me, especially when I was trying to be kind. The second was I remembered feeling like I couldn’t tell my coaches because they just wouldn’t understand. As a young child dealing with this was difficult. Oftentimes coaches and teammates would ask me about my hair, because I would jump in the pool and my hair would be straight, but when I got out it would be an afro. While there might not have been ill intent with the comments that they made, the problem was I was the only person getting asked these questions. As a kid who was never the best swimmer on the team and already dealing with insecurities as a new kid and the only Black kid on the team, it was hard being bombarded with questions about my unique hair or skin. It became difficult dealing with the microaggressions that would come from my teammates and coaches because of my race.
While there were negative moments in the sport. I swam competitively for nine years and I can honestly say absolutely love the sport. It has helped me grow not only as an athlete but as a person. It taught me hard work and dedication. I remember day after day there were so many times where I didn’t want to swim, but because of the swim community and the sport itself I would come, even when I wouldn’t want to. When I finished a set or practice I remembered that going to practice was worth it because in those two hours I got better, stronger, and faster. When I would come to swim meets my coaches could tell me it's because of the work that I put in during practice. Swimming was also an outlet for me. When I would go through hard times I would dive in and all of my worries would fade away because it was just me and the black line. Then I would feel the instant gratification of being able to complete a hard set that I wasn’t able to do a year ago. I also built so many relationships with my teammates and other swimmers and coaches. Some of my coaches became some of my biggest mentors and supporters. Building these relationships has allowed me to to have open dialogue with teammates and coaches about race and culture, and because of those discussions they have gotten to gain more insight into my world and gain more racial competence.
Seeing the power in open dialogue I realized I could use it to increase diversity in other spaces in my life. Throughout high school I found it important to increase diversity. I started a diversity, equity, and inclusion club at my school. I also acted as a liaison with school administrators on behalf of the students of color. I find education and teaching another one of my many passions. I started tutoring underprivileged children in math and reading. I also tutored Hispanic children through an English as a Second Language program. So now I have gotten to take my love for teaching, DEI, service and swimming and put it into my Nonprofit “When We All Swim.” Last summer I started giving swim lessons to little kids. Throughout that summer I got better at teaching lessons and altering lessons for each child. I also taught water aerobics for older women that summer. When We All Swim is an organization that recognized the disparity in swimming amongst Black youth. Black children are three times more likely to die of drowning than their white counterparts. With this statistic the safety of Black children in the water is in question. I love swimming and I wanted other Black children to share the same love for the sport and be safe in the water. Growing up I remember how amazing it was to look up to the few Black swimmers that are within the community, and I wanted to be that person for other children as they learn to swim.
Emma Gwan-Nulla is graduating from Brookstone School this month and will be attending the University of Pennsylvania in the fall. Her best events are the 100yd Butterfly, 100yd Freestyle, and 100yd Backstroke. I have been swimming since I was 8 years old. Sadly I had to take a break from swimming this year because of Covid-19. While I wasn't able to be in the water I have taken up weightlifting and biking. Upon reflection I also founded a non profit called When We All Swim which is a program that increases safety and diversity in swimming. I want other young Black swimmers to experience the passionate and life changing experience of competitive swimming. I plan to major in Health and Societies on a Pre-med track while at Penn. I am about to go into my third year as a lifeguard, swim instructor, and water aerobics instructor. I love serving others, watching netflix and reality tv shows, embarking on new projects, and making lasting memories with friends.