Growing up in Baltimore, there were no famous African-American pro swimmers for Giles Smith to idolize.
He noticed the few minorities on his swim clubs as a youth, a trend that carried through his college career at Arizona.
And with the start of the 2016 Rio Games less than a year away, African-Americans continue to lag others when it comes to swimming, one of the marquee events.
In fact, it wasn’t until the 2000 Sydney Games that Anthony Ervin became the first swimmer of African-American descent to make the U.S. Olympic team, where he won gold in the 50 freestyle and silver in the 400 freestyle relay. Four years later, Maritza Correia became the first African-American woman to make the squad, helping secure the silver medal in the 400 freestyle relay in Athens.
By the time the 2012 London Games rolled around, though, only three of the 47 members of the U.S. swim team were African-American.
Smith, a 23-year-old Olympic hopeful and member of the U.S. national swim team, is hoping to help change that.
“It used to be seen as a country club sport, and I think nowadays we have some programs across schools and parks and recreation programs that make it available to an audience that necessarily might not have been able to swim,” said Smith, who won gold in the 100 butterfly and silver in the 400 medley relay at the Pan American Games in Toronto last month.
“We need to have more kids learning to swim and more kids knowing they can do that as opposed to playing something like basketball or football. I think that as long as we keep pushing all sports, whether it’s basketball, football, swimming or tennis, and as long the kid is open to trying and sticking with it, I think that more and more kids will do it, and over time you’ll have more and more people making major national teams.”
For Smith, who came from a predominantly African-American community, swimming wasn’t a viable option when he was a kid because none of the area public schools had a pool. He believes swimming still hasn’t taken off in a lot of urban communities, which plays a role in the 70 percent of African-Americans who have low or no swim ability, according to 2010 research study by USA Swimming and the University of Memphis.
“I’ve done some work with USA Swimming about these statistics and we mostly need to put initiatives in communities that we need to learn how to swim,” Smith said. “We don’t necessarily need to be a world-class or Olympic swimmer; we need to be able to swim for safety.
“A lot of people, even in the African-American community, say, ‘Black people can’t swim.’ I think that’s completely childish and untrue. I think we can swim as well as anyone. We just need to put an emphasis in our communities that it’s important.”
With the hopes of changing those numbers, Smith, along with two-time Israeli Olympian Nim Shapira and his Aqua Club coaching staff, will conduct a swim clinic for children of all ages and swim levels beginning at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at Oxford High. The clinic will be followed by a Sprint Challenge.
Kevin Cordes, Smith’s college teammate and fellow Olympic hopeful, who holds American records in the 100 and 200 breaststroke (meters and yards), will be helping during the clinic. The group will provide instruction, hold a Q&A session, show off some of their medals and race for the kids.
“We just want to show them some of the things that you can do through swimming,” Smith said. “I’ve been blessed to travel the world and see all kinds of places. I want to relay that to the kids.”
Smith’s goal is to also leverage his background and athleticism to promote diversity in swimming, something that is easier said than done.
“Swim lessons are a good start so kids at a young age can learn that swimming is something that is fun, that you can do as a recreational activity, and it’s something you can show to parents that it’s just like other sports and can keep our kids off the street,” said Smith, who added that swimming should be a part of every elementary school curriculum.
“As a society, there’s so much more that we could do in terms of making it available.”
With his recent success at the Pan Am Games and a new wave of elite African-American swimmers — including Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones and two-time individual NCAA champion Simone Manuel (Stanford) — Smith aspires to become one of those idols he never had.
“There’s a lot of high quality and good character African-American individuals in the sport,” Smith said. “I hope one day or even now little kids, especially minority kids with African-American backgrounds, will see one of our names and say, ‘Hey, maybe I can swim’ or ‘Why not me? Why can’t I be an Olympic swimmer?’ ”
James Hawkins is a freelance writer.
Pro Swim Clinic/Sprint Challenge
Saturday at Oxford High
Details: (248) 420-8064 or proswimclinic.com
7:30-8 a.m.: Athlete check-in
8:30-11 a.m.: Clinic featuring world champion Kevin Cordes, Pan Am champion Giles Smith, two-time Israel Olympian Nim Shapira and Rockford native and NCAA champion Chris Sullivan
11:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m.: Meet check-in
Noon-12:50 p.m.: Meet warmup
1-3 p.m.: Sprint Challenge