I couldn’t have said this before January, but I know this now: swimming with a team is bonding in truly unique ways. I haven’t been on a team since my days on a track team. As far as team bonding goes, nothing compares to changing into a body-hugging piece of swimwear, taking on a workout that probably won’t drown you, and then showering as a group.
You’ll see more about this program on aSweatLife soon, but we brought 16 people of various swim skills together (think very, very beginner all the way up to competitive) and challenged them to get better at swimming – whatever that meant to them. After swim practice each week, we’d see posts from team members on Instagram talking about the practice or what they’d learned.
After the first week, Angela Books posted a photo with our coach Joy Miles with the caption, “Black Girls can swim too.” Both Angela and Joy are Black women, by the way, and both are expert swimmers.
I’ve known Angela Brooks for a while – I follow her on Instagram, so I see her dedication to endurance sports, her historically black sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha, and mentorship. But I was recently able to see her weekly at swim team practice, too.
After seeing her post, I reached out to Angela to ask her about it. Because I know who she is as a person, I felt an intentionality to her post: she wanted to be an example.
“I post my swim workouts – because I want to normalize [ Black women swimming ],” she shared. And there’s a reason to normalize it – America’s complicated history of redlining, segregation and racism created a dearth of access to swimming pools for Black people. NPR and The New York Times have both covered this history, which was a product of both legal segregation and de facto segregation, like putting public swimming pools outside of redlined areas.
All of this is to say that it’s more challenging for Black children to access swimming pools and lessons. That’s led to 58 percent of African-American children who can’t swim, NPR reports, which is double the rate of white children. And children who can’t swim are far more likely to drown: there are 11 fatal drownings a day, the CDC reports – which makes drowning a leading cause of childhood death.
Angela’s journey as a Black woman swimming
And for Angela, her journey into the pool started in 2011 because she started cycling in 2011. She remembers her triathlete friends telling her to “Quit being a wuss and learn to swim.” Tough love is the athlete’s way.
So, she listened, and committed to learning to swim in 2014 for the Chicago triathlon. Open water, Angela shared, was a different sort of challenge. “I freaked out and got in the boat,” she recalled.
Between that moment, and today, Angela committed to going from surviving to thriving in the water. Today, she ranks the three disciplines of the triathlon in order of most to least favorite as swimming, then biking, then running.
That’s a long way to come in eight years of swimming.
To go from an all out panic, to seeking the relaxation of the water, Angela got help. She enrolled in master swim at UIC and got more comfortable with open water swimming, but all of that came with time. The year of her 40th birthday, Angela committed to swimming every day of the year.
She half jokes that the initial impediment to swimming was her hair. But regardless of the dreadlocks she wore to her waist that year, she swam anyway and dripped dry for the first two hours of work.
Today, with a short hairstyle, Angela’s main obstacle is being the only one who looks like her. When she enters a pool, she said that she has to fight the perception that she’s there to walk laps. When she’s swimming in open water, she’s the only black woman there.
Today, Angela supports the idea that anyone at any age can learn to swim. Angela points out that a lot of work is being done to touch more lives through swimming. Another historically Black sorority, Sigma Gamma Rho, made it their mission to be a part of the solution for “African-American community to learn water safety in general and swimming specifically” and through it, they’ve touched more than 22,000 lives, she shared.
“When I think about looking at diversity in those sports, it’s about access,” Angela shared. “You can learn to swim at any age, and it’s the perfect compliment to any workout.”
More resources on swimming from Angela:
- Adult learn to swim programs are at every pool for around $50. Seriously, just google “adult learn to swim, [your city]”
- For gear, try Swim Outlet, everything is a great price point
- For glasses-wearers, prescription goggles are $20 at SwimOutlet
- If hair is a limiting factor for Black women swimming, Angela recommends a protective hairstyle or a leave-in treatment if you were planning to style your hair that day. (If you’re curious why hair would be a limiting factor, here’s a scholarly article)