How one woman is challenging stereotypes by teaching Black people to swim

·5 min read

At last summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, the USA swim team took 53 athletes. Just three of the swimmers were Black.

Much has been written about the lack of diversity in the pool, but for swim instructor Paulana Lamonier, harmful stereotypes distract from tackling the real reasons behind the imbalance. 

“It's like, why don't enough Black people learn how to swim? Because you haven't created that space for us,” Lamonier, the founder of Black People Will Swim, tells Yahoo Life. “There's that lack of affordability — classes are expensive — lack of representation and the access to pools.”

As a New York native, Lamonier attended swim lessons as a kid, and relearned the skill when she went to college. Determined to prove herself on the school's swim team, Lamonier attended swim practice diligently, even during the off season. Her dedication caught the attention of her coaches, who took her under their wing and encouraged her to start teaching.

“I became an assistant coach. I was teaching the 5- to 7-year-olds how to swim, and then I took my talents to the YMCA where I really learned how to serve people in lower income communities,” says Lamonier.

In 2019, the USA Swimming Foundation found that 64 percent of Black children have no or low swimming ability, compared to 40 percent of white children. Inspired by the lack of representation in the pool, Lamonier tweeted her goal of teaching 30 Black people to swim by the end of 2019. The tweet went viral and she received hundreds of replies, easily achieving her goal. Along the way, she also discovered the reasons why some of her students never learned how to swim.

“I mean the stereotype that Black people don't know how to swim because our bones are too dense. It was said on national television from the vice president of the LA Dodgers,” says Lamonier, referring to the controversial comments from Al Campanis in 1987. 

“They don't know how to swim because they were just taught to steer clear from the water. Their parents didn't know how to swim. So their parents are like, l don't know how to swim, I'm not going to put you in a situation where that would endanger you and myself.”

(Photo: Petercov Denis)
Lamonier believes teaching Black people to swim is as an act of resistance. (Photo: Petercov Denis)

Additionally, Lamonier attributes the lack of swim instruction in Black communities to systemic structures that exist in many cities around America. Public pools were legally segregated in the United States until July 19, 1950. That segregation led to separate but unequal facilities, and when it ended, an even deeper divide emerged.

“In New York history, there's a thing called white flight. So as more Black people started moving into the cities, the affluent rich people, white people, would move out to Eastern Long Island,” says Lamonier. “They're building their own country clubs, they're building and creating their own private pools. So New York City pools in Black or minority neighborhoods are not kept and maintained in the same ways as white country clubs out East,” says Lamonier.

Today, the CDC reports that Black children ages 10-14 years old drown at rates 7.6 times higher in swimming pools than white children. The statistics show that that the Black experience has never been prioritized in swimming, so Lamonier has made that her mission. Last March, she launched Black People Will Swim, an organization created to smash stereotypes and empower Black swimmers.

“We are resisting the stereotype — that we've been told that we can't do it for so long. And not only are we going to do it, we're going to equip other people to have job opportunities, to equip themselves with the knowledge and tools to pass it on to their friends and family,” says Lamonier.

(Photo: Petercov Denis)
Black People Will Swim is changing stereotypes. (Photo: Petercov Denis)

The teaching philosophy at Black People Will Swim can be summed up with the acronym F.A.C.E. (Fun, Awareness, Community and Education). Fun is at the core of what they do, so students are encouraged to move at their own pace. Awareness of the statistics and addressing any fears helps to build trust in the pool. Engaging in the community provides support and encouragement. As for education, it includes swim instruction in addition to lifestyle tips. 

“A big part of swimming, why Black people also don't swim, is the lack of education when it comes to their hair. So we want to make sure that we're educating them that your hair is a sponge. What are swim caps to wear and what hair products to use? What if you're going to get braids? What kind of braids should you get? This is all part of the education, so essentially removing that barrier,” says Lamonier.

Lamonier believes teaching Black people to swim is as an act of resistance, because by creating her own community, she's encouraging swimmers to conquer their fears in the pool. Her goal is to teach 2,020 people to swim in the coming years, and she hopes to one day open her own swim facility in Long Island with an Olympic-sized pool to teach lessons. She’s not afraid to try new things, and she expects the same from her students.

“I want to remind people that you can learn how to swim at any age, do not let people discourage you. If you are the only Black person or person of color who is taking some class, stand in that,” says Lamonier. “Know that you're here to make change and break chains. And most importantly, I'm proud of you for doing the work.”

Video produced by Jacquie Cosgrove