After I stopped screaming, jumping up and down and losing all of my mind, when I finally took a moment to breathe, the tears came, and boy did they come hard. Watching Simone Manuel become the first African-American woman to win a gold individual medal was an emotional moment for a large audience, but as a former African-American swimmer from Houston, Texas – it held an additional weight.
For decades the prevailing refrain has been “Black people can’t swim.” “Black people don’t swim.” “Black girls can’t get their hair wet.” As a black swimmer these words have always been infuriating. Thursday night went a long way in hopefully shutting these phrases down forever.
I can’t say I always wanted to be a swimmer. I don’t even remember learning how to swim. It has been a part of my life since my earliest memories. I distinctly remember a conversation with my parents at the age of 9, after 2 very successful summer swim seasons in the 8 & under age group, I was given the option to swim that next summer if I wanted. I told them no. But my dad, Thurman Robins a former swimmer himself, had other plans.
Eventually my dad would see that I was talented and enjoyed the sport, but resources available to me were lacking. So my dad took it upon himself, along with my godfather and his long-time friend, Johnnie Means to start a swim team. Means had access to the pool he oversaw at Texas Southern University and suggested they contact Commissioner El Franco Lee, a former swimmer of Means, who may be able to assist in getting the program up and running. From there Harris County Aquatics Program (HCAP) was born.
Swimming is an expensive sport; between club dues, coaching fees, pool fees, swimsuits and equipment, meet entry fees – the list goes on and on. HCAP was so important because it was a free program geared toward inner-city youth, to give them access to the sport.
I will never forget my first USA Swim season. I was a super skinny 13-year old. I was good, not great, and honestly late to the party. Many of my competitors had been swimming year-round since they were 8-years-old. Those first few meets our team was often met with open-mouthed stares. We were a 95% black team in a world where I only remember two other black faces, Nedra Watler and Amber Goodwin. They were my first heroes – because they looked like me. Commonality was so important. I knew I was different. But Nedra and Amber were like me, and if they were different and could do it, then dammit so could I! And I did. I had a successful age group career, going on to win state championships, and qualifiying for junior and senior nationals.
My favorite moments as an age-group swimmer were when we would travel to Washington DC for the Black History Invitational meet and Atlanta, GA for the Chris Silva Invitational. These meets featured black swim teams from around the country. The famed Philadelphia Department of Recreation (PDR) and City of Atlanta Dolphins (CAD) were two of the powerhouse teams featured at the meet. I can’t begin to describe how awesome and fun it was every year to go to these meets and see other black swimmers, fast black swimmers. We were not alone, there were others like us. This is where I first saw Sabir Muhammad. He became my next hero. I had never seen someone so tall, so fast and if I’m being honest, so handsome! Whatever Sabir did, I wanted to do. I felt like if I could emulate him, then I would be the best.
In 1993 USA Swimming realized they had a diversity problem and created a select outreach camp for minority swimmers. I was 13 years old when I was invited to attend the first camp at the Olympic Training Center. It was incredible to meet swimmers from all different backgrounds from around the country and to train where Olympians train. We were also exposed to mentors of color at the camp. We were able to meet, talk, share stories and dreams with Sabir Muhammad, Byron Davis, and Jeff Commings just to name a few. Again real examples that what we wanted to do was possible. I still keep in touch today with many of the swimmers I met at that camp.
When it was time for me to make the decision about college it was a tough one. Many of the schools I was interested in were not interested in me. I was fast, but I wasn’t quite as fast as others my age. But I knew I had started late and had a lot of improving in my future. I had gone to swim camp at the University of Texas, and thought maybe they would be interested? I told my dad to call Jill Sterkel. Jill Sterkel is a swimming legend: a four-time Olympian, two-time Olympic gold medalist. Jill saw something in me. What made me even more excited about swimming at Texas, was when I found out that Christina and Indira Allick, black swimmers from San Antonio swam for UT, and Danielle Strader, a PDR swimmer also swam there. Again it made it all seem a little more possible. I could do this.
And again I did. I went on to win conference championships, was an 8-time All-American, and in 2001, won the 200 Free Relay at the NCAA Championships and broke a 13-year-old American Record with another African-American teammate Tanica Jamison, as well as Colleen Lanne and Erin Phenix. A year later our record was broken by a team from Georgia. I was heartbroken. The one thing that eased the pain, that relay team also had two black swimmers, Neka Mabry and Maritza Correia.
I had always dreamed of being the first Black American Olympian. I went to trials in 2000 and had a very disappointing meet. That year Anthony Ervin made the Olympic team and was touted as the first Olympic swimmer of African-American decent. Most black swimmers I knew were excited about it. It got very complicated when he wasn’t so excited about the title himself. Earlier this month he addressed this by saying, “If I may speak for the sport in general, before any of us of African-American descent made the team, those in leadership were deeply ashamed it hadn’t happened and honestly wanted it to, so they supported whoever seemed to be the most likely.”
By the time my swimming career was over in 2002, it was pretty apparent to me, I would never be an Olympian. It was a realization that still stings a bit. It had been my dream for 15 years. I watched friends and teammates become Olympians and Olympic medalists. My Olympic obsession is so ridiculous, every four years I torment my husband with dreams of a new sport I can take up, just to figure out how to get those rings.
In 2004, Maritza Correia became the first black woman to make an Olympic team. I beamed! It felt like I had done it. I knew Maritza, swam against Maritza and she looked like me, just much faster! Martiza would earn an Olympic silver medal as a part of the 400 Free Relay at the Athens Olympics.
In 2008 Cullen Jones became the first African-American to hold a world-record as a part of the gold medal winning 400 free relay. He returned to the Olympics in 2012 where he earned a silver as part of the same relay. Cullen has become an ambassador for blacks in the sport of swimming. He has made it his work to educate others on the importance of swimming in disadvantaged communities. African-Americans drown at a rate three times higher than their white counterparts. Access matters.
In 2012 came Lia Neal who won bronze as part of the 400 free relay. Lia is also a member of the 2016 team and won silver earlier this week as part of the 400 free relay.
These moments were so important – so pivotal. They were historic and life changing. So when Simone Manual tied for gold in the 100m Free at the 2016 Rio Olympics, a dream was finally realized. In her post-race interview she acknowledged those who came before her and named Maritza and Cullen, and said she hoped to inspire a generation to come. As tears streamed down my face, and the sobs became uncontrollable, I knew I wasn’t alone. I could feel all across the country all the black swimmers who grew up with me and before me, who were good, who had a dream to be great, and for a moment Thursday night, we all won gold.