The children lined up along the side of the pool at the Gaffney Fitness Center at Fort Meade in Maryland like ducks behind their mother.
Volunteer coaches guided them into the water and ran through basic swimming techniques. The children ducked their faces underwater and blew bubbles, then kicked their way across the pool with the aid of coaches who pulled them along by their hands. Then they floated on their backs; their arms and legs spread wide.
The youngsters were taking part in a swim clinic organized by Sigma Gamma Rho, an African-American sorority. The organization, in partnership with USA Swimming, has been hosting swim clinics and other events around the country for five years to address the large number of African-Americans who can’t swim and sometimes drown. They named the initiative Swim 1922 as a tribute to the year the sorority was founded.
Sixty-four percent of African-American children can’t swim; they drown at a rate nearly three times higher than their white peers, according to USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport
In Maryland, the disparity in drowning is not as great. One of every 100,000 white people died by drowning in 2012 compared to 1.3 of every 100,000 African-Americans, according to the Maryland Health Department. The Baltimore City Health Department said whites drowned at higher rates in the city but officials haven’t explored the reason.
The Sigma Gamma Rho initiative is part of a broader effort by USA Swimming to increase the sport’s diversity.
The national disparity in drownings has been a problem for some time, one that many different organizations have tried to tackle and the Centers for Disease Control has tracked.
The disparities are most pronounced in swimming pool drownings. African-Americans ages 5 to 19 drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than whites, according to the CDC. African-American children ages 11 to 12 are at even greater risk; they drown in swimming pools at rates 10 times that of peer whites.
“Parents are taking their kids to pools and the beach and so many of them don’t know how to swim,” said Barbara Sawyer, president of the Baltimore chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho. “Anything could happen while they are in the water.”
Sigma Gamma Rho surveyed 3,200 women in its organization in 2012 to try to learn why African-Americans aren’t swimming at higher rates.
The sorority found some of its members had bad experiences as children, either near-drownings or being thrown into the water unexpectedly. Others were worried about the additional work involved with African-American women’s hair care, while others said swim lessons cost too much.
Other research has found historical influences such as the past segregation of public pools, which African-Americans once were forbidden to use. Even after the end of formal segregation, many black people said they were made to feel unwelcome at municipal pools. Many also could not afford the private pool clubs that many whites joined after desegregation.
“Swimming as a skill, as a recreation, as a sport and as a social activity has been passed down generationally among white Americans,” said Jeff Wiltse, a professor of history at the University of Montana and author of the book “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.” “This wasn’t the case with African-Americans.”
In Baltimore, 4M Swim and Recreation Inc. has taught generations of black children to swim. Ebony Rosemond started Black Kids Swim in Largo, after noticing the lack of diversity at her daughter’s swim meets. The organization promotes swimming among African-Americans and has a website that includes hair care and water safety tips and articles on famous black swimmers.
“We started the organization to educate parents and promote the sport to kids,” Rosemond said. “We want to show African-American children there are others who look like them who are excelling in the sport.”
Sigma Gamma Rho, using volunteer coaches provided by USA Swimming, started out teaching black mothers who they hoped would also want their children to learn to swim. If a parent can’t swim, there is only a 19 percent chance that a child in that household will learn to swim, according to USA Swimming.
The sorority then began holding clinics to teach children as well. Formal swimming lessons can reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88 percent, according to USA Swimming.
“It’s about getting more people into the pool,” said Dawne Stanton, president of the Silver Spring alumni chapter of Sigma Gamma Rho, which sponsored the Fort Meade clinic. “It’s about water safety and saving people’s lives.”
The one-day clinics are meant to expose families to swimming and spark an interest in taking more classes. The sorority brings in high-profile African-American swimmers to help teach some of the classes. The growth in the number of African-American Olympian swimmers, such as Simone Manuel, 21, the first African-American woman swimmer to win a gold medal, has put a more diverse face on the sport in recent years.
Maritza McClendon, who in 2004 became the first black woman to make the U.S. Olympic swim team, helped coach the children at Fort Meade. She won a silver medal as a member of the 400-meter freestyle relay team that year. She only learned to swim after a doctor suggested it when she was diagnosed with scoliosis, a condition that causes the spine to curve.
“We are not asking people to become an Olympic swimmer,” McClendon said. “We want people to have the skills to feel comfortable and safe in the water.”
Coaches taught the children at Fort Meade in three groups, representing different skill levels.
Sisters Marley and Makenzie Laing, aged 7 and 4 respectively, were part of the beginners group with volunteer coach Elvin D. Foreman Jr., the head coach of the Elite Rays Swim Club in Potomac Valley. Foreman’s father almost drowned while at war in Vietnam and made it a point to make sure his children knew how to swim.
Although they love the pool and the beach, neither of the girls can swim. Their father, Thomas Laing, grew up in Florida and taught himself to swim so he could keep up with his friends. He wants his girls to have strong swimming skills and thought it would be inspirational to meet McClendon.
Makenzie, wearing orange goggles and a one-piece swimsuit with horses and rainbows, was reluctant to put her face in the water at first. But she became more comfortable with each exercise.
To ease his group into floating, Foreman first had them lie on their backs on the side of the pool and had them practice breathing and then relaxing as if they were going to sleep.
“Breathe, breathe, relax,” he had them repeat several times before having them try it in the water.
O’Neill Cornish, 9, ran to his mother dancing after he successfully floated.
“I did it. I did it,” he said.
In 2016, Sigma Gamma Rho hosted 100 swimming events nationwide, logging more than 1,000 hours of community service related to swimming, with 2,500 swim lessons completed and 500,000 laps swum.
Sigma Gamma Rho members said that teaching children to swim will not only keep them safe, but also could open up new career opportunities such as working as a lifeguard, a marine biologist or a member of the U.S. Coast Guard. It also can teach teamwork and discipline.
Robert Purnell, a coach with the Coppin State Aquatic Club, said that swimming should be as accessible as football and basketball. When he was growing up in Baltimore, swim classes were offered in the schools, he said.
“It is alarming that today most African-Americans don’t know how to swim,” he said.
At the end of the workshop at Fort Meade, organizers urged the children to continue improving their swimming skills. Each child received a goody bag that included water safety tips and a swim cap.
“We don’t want this to be the last time you get in the pool,” said Merari Chollette, the safe sport chair with the Potomac Valley Swim Club, which provided coaches for the event at Fort Meade.
Makenzie Laing, who was initially reluctant to put her face in the water, was ready for more swim time at the end of the session.
“I wish we could stay here and swim forever,” she said with a wide-tooth grin.