The fact that Cullen Jones and Lia Neal aren't usually mentioned when discussing professional swimmers, while Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are, only draws attention to the line drawn in the sand between African American and Caucasian swimmers.
Jones and Neal, who are both African American, each earned medals in the 2012 London Olympic Games and count among the short list of accomplished African-American swimmers in the country. While swimming still remains a non-traditional sport to some in the black community, interest is quickly growing.
That's why the United Black Fund (UBF) partners with the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) to host a competition that attracts young swimmers from across the nation each year. "The fact that USA Swimming is a part of this event, let's you know the quality of the competition," said UBF president Barry LeNoir. "In USA Swimming's words, this is the biggest and most important meet of its kind. We're motivating kids to swim and combining it with knowledge about Black history."
Participants in the 27th Annual Black History Invitational Swim Meet made quite a splash at the Takoma Aquatic Center last weekend. The event, which is the brainchild of UBF founder Dr. Calvin Rolark and former DPR director Dr. William H. Rumsey, never fails to bring together many of the nation's best athletes.
Swimmers, coaches, parents and spectators filled the aquatic center, located in Northwest, to participate in the three-day competition. Vehicles emblazoned with various swim club decals lined Van Buren Street and more than 900 individuals attended the event.
"My granddaughter's down from Newark, N.J., and she's competing in a few events," said Frederick Matthews, 79. "I was talking to a friend of mine who is also here and said that he'd never seen this many people at something like this before. A lot of blacks didn't have this opportunity; we couldn't go to the pool to swim, when I was coming up. It's just amazing at how much better things [with swimming] are now," the Northeast resident said.
From Start to Finish was the theme of this year's competition, so it was only fitting that UBF and DPR honor a District swimmer who dared to dive into a national memorial after being prohibited from swimming in District public pools.
Ninety-three-year-old John Tatum stood before a crowd in one of the center's rooms and entertained guests as he reminisced about learning to swim at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool because African Americans were prohibited from using public swimming facilities at the time.
"We were around six or seven years old and we'd go down there to swim," said Tatum, who lives in the District. "We'd stick our feet in the water and try to stand up, but we'd fall because the bottom of the pool was so slippery. That's the kind of swimming we did."
Tatum, a nine-time medal winner in the National Senior Olympic games, was selected as this year's honoree. Tatum is a member of the D.C. Water Wizards, a competitive senior swim team. His affiliation with the swim club has allowed him to participate in competitions across the country. He said last weekend's events shouldn't just serve as inspiration to its young participants.
"The main thing is to get other people my age to [be active in sports]," he said. "If what I do inspires somebody else, then that is what is important... Seniors need to know that you can accept your age, be proud and still be active."
Carmen Holassie, 44, lives in the District and spent most of the weekend cheering on her nine-year-old son Richard who participated in the butterfly, freestyle and backstroke events. Richard is a member of the DPR's D.C. Wave; the city's lone national competitive public youth swim team. Founded in 1983 with just eight swimmers, the team now boasts a roster of more than 120.
"All of the kids we have in the club are my kids," said D.C. Wave swim coach Rodger McCoy, a Northwest resident, who's been with the club since its inception.
Holassie said that while swimming has kept her young son physically active and healthy, the sport has had an even bigger impact on his life outside of the pool.
"Swimming has also helped him a lot in school. It's increased his mental focus," she said. "I've noticed that if he stops swimming for a period of time for whatever reason, I can see the difference. He'll get into trouble or will act very irritable. When he's swimming, there's less confusion. He's more focused and he gets his homework done on time."
Tatum said he hopes last weekend's events will help to bolster interest in the sport and ultimately produce future Olympians.
"Out of all of the kids who are out here swimming today, we have to have some future stars," he said with a laugh. "We make up 13 percent of the population; we should make up at least 13 percent of the swimmers who represent the country in the Olympics."