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by Atiya Hopkins
Growing up in Middletown, Connecticut in the 70’s and 80’s, (wow moment for me, yes- the 1970’s) I was surrounded by family. Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and cousins, we all lived within a bicycle ride of each other. The generation in which I grew up did not set expectations that you must to go to college. It was just as honorable to work a typical job so long as you could provide for yourself. Therefore, people often remained in the area after graduation and the family remained close.
Whenever there was a family gathering, we had cookouts, played card games, had a fish fry, danced or bowled. That was the norm and it was generationally passed down. In my nucleus, as with most black Americans I imagine, there was no neighborhood pool, or if there was, you did not go there often. So it’s no surprise, that the people I knew could not swim. There are generations of people and families that are non-swimmers, and it goes on and on and on…
I cannot say when exactly my fear of water began. I must have been very young because for me, it has always been there. I can remember the first time I took a shower as a child. I stood with my back to it the whole time only turning briefly to rinse the soap from my body. Getting water on my face would cause my breath to catch; it felt like my heartbeat was grabbing my breath back to me. I have recently learned that my mother was afraid of the water as well. I never knew this because we didn’t go “swimming” but a handful of times. And I do not recall ever seeing her in the water. Perhaps this is something that we as parents must note. Are we unknowingly passing our fears onto our children?
The few opportunities that I had in the water, I would conveniently “forget” my swim suit. My two brothers, having no fear, would manage to brave the water and could have fun in any situation. And then there is our hair. Many of us black women were threatened in that deep, low, and serious tone, backed up with eye-to-eye contact, “You’d better not get your hair wet.” – and whomever said it, meant it. You did not disobey that rule or there was a spanking to follow. I know many black women and girls can relate to that. There is a lot of money, time and tears that go into getting your hair done as a black female. As a child, you go through the tender-headed years. Becoming accustomed to the tugging and pulling from the teeth of the comb, the burn or heat from the hot straightening comb, the hours on end of sitting still, and the money that goes in to straightening our hair to style it. If you get it wet, your hair “goes back” (back to its original state). Immediately. You did not voluntarily sign up to go through that regularly and families did not have the money to keep repeating these processes. Therefore, swimming was not often looked upon as a fun time, or a suggestion by one’s parent.
As I got older, I began to become embarrassed about the fact that I couldn’t swim. I had moved away, my circle widened, and had gone so long without learning that my fear increased. I would be in a pool but did not like to be splashed. I made sure that my children learned to swim at the ages of 4 and 5 when I could no longer cordon them to just the stairs. But my husband, who loves the water, would always tell them if you fell off a boat you need to know how to float, because you cannot swim forever. Those type of lessons were hard to find. I confess I would wear sunglasses to keep water out of my eyes, not for the sun. I would scurry away from approaching kids and cling to the wall sometimes literally. I would move my arms in circles under the water and jump forward to “test” my swimming ability of which there was zero. It looked like so much fun, everyone smiling and playing games, and I was just an observer.
I started working at Texas Swim Academy in 2013. My husband and kids thought that was the funniest thing they had heard. For me it was more than a good thing, it was a God thing for many reasons. In 2014, I had confided to my co-worker that I resolved to learn how to swim as my 40th birthday gift to myself. She was surprised that I did not know how already. I am a daredevil after all, roller coasters, skydiving, whitewater rafting- so long as you remain in the boat, no big deal. That was told to her on the morning of September 17, 2014. On September 19, 2014, I had my first swimming lesson. No, I did not believe myself to be ready immediately. But when your co-worker tells the owner Kathleen McMordie, that you want to learn to swim… you don’t get the chance to back out. “How does tomorrow morning sound to you?” You say, “It sounds good.”
I did not tell anyone in my family. I cried while getting ready. I sobbed. I cried in the car and all the way into the building. There I was met by worried and concerned faces. They had no idea what was going on. I was escorted into the back office and put into a chair with worried faces asking me to confide in them. What’s wrong? What’s going on Atiya? “It’s my first swim lesson,” I literally cried out. Yes, I did hear an audible pause in the room. They did not laugh, well not at me, they started to rally around me and pump me up. I remember the Rocky theme music, and the thumping on the desk. Suggestions and advice were being given to me on the lead out into the pool. This was a monumental shift I was making in my life. I was following through on a secret desire I had held as close as a whisper to myself all of my life. I had been witness to a countless number of people come in crying or nervous and be successful and knew that could be me too. It would be.
I am happy to see more faces like mine come through the door. My younger self would have been amazed to see how many black faces walk through Texas Swim Academy’s doors. My current more mature self would like to see a great many more. USA Swimming Foundation reported that 64% of African American children have no or low swim skills. While a 2017 CDC report states that African Americans ages 5-19 are 5.5 times more likely to drown in swimming pools than white children! Listen, I know we buy lotto tickets when odds of winning are nearly zero. But, think of that staggering fact for just a moment.
The running joke, “black people don’t swim” needs to be something that we move to overcome. I am here today to tell you that black people absolutely can swim! I can swim. You CAN swim. We are building neighborhoods and pools at a fast rate here in Texas. It all begins with a decision. We can do all things. This is just a largely untapped opportunity before us. We are living in a time where neighborhood pools are the norm, and your child has a friend who has a pool or your neighbor. This is increasingly becoming something we must learn to embrace as it cannot be avoided, hair be damned for a while.
SWIM SCHOOL IN KATY
Texas Swim Academy is a state-of-the-art swimming facility offering water safety, survival swim, and kids swimming lessons in Katy, Texas. Owners Kathleen and Bruce McMordie, alongside our certified staff, help parents introduce children to water at an early age through the Infant Survival Swim Program , teaching life-saving techniques and basic swimming skills.
Our Stroke Development Program offers six different levels to help students progress in their swimming skills at his or her own pace. Our Adaptive Aquatics Program was created specifically for children with special abilities. Find swimming class registration information here. By subscribing to Texas Swim Academy’s blog , you can stay current on valuable water safety resources such as survival swim, health and wellness, Texas Swim Academy news and more. Follow our Facebook , Twitter, and YouTube pages for even more news, updates, and tips!