Photo: Lailanie Symonette

When many of us think about athletic paths for our children to follow, competitive swimming isn’t typically high up on the list. Black Kids Swim (BKS) is an organization trying to change both the way we look at swimming in general and competitive swimming as an outlet and scholarship source for black children. We talked with the founder of BKS, Ebony Rosemond, about her journey and where BKS is hoping to take swimming in the black community.

Very Smart Brothas: What is Black Kids Swim and what compelled you to start the organization (and site) and begin this journey? Tell me about yourself and your background.

Ebony Rosemond: Officially, Black Kids Swim is a nonprofit organization, based in Largo, Md., dedicated to increasing the number of black competitive swimmers. The sport is not diverse. We’re changing that. There’s a ton of educational and professional opportunities out there for proficient swimmers—and our kids in large part can’t access those opportunities. We’re changing that as well.

I started the organization because my daughter is a competitive swimmer. Around age 11, she got really, really good. And we noticed she was the only black girl, or one of very few, at the more competitive invitational meets. On the way home from one of these meets, she googled “black kids swim” and the returns were saddening. Stories about drownings, depressing statistics (black kids are five times more likely to drown according to the CDC; 70 percent of African Americans lack basic swim skills and on and on). So we decided to do something about it.

Before BKS there was nowhere for black swim parents to go for advice. Our FB Page and group is amazing—even I learn something every day. I’m a mom, so seeing the next generation succeed is my responsibility. Our kids are drowning (literally and figuratively)—they aren’t graduating from high school, they have higher rates of obesity and diabetes than ever before, they are going to jail at young ages for longer sentences than anyone else. BKS is my contribution. If some kid gets a BKS scholarship to join a summer swim team then that’s one kid who won’t drown, who may get a scholarship to a private high school to be on the swim team, who may get a college athletic scholarship, who may work summers as a lifeguard, who may become the director of aquatics of a municipality one day. At the very least, that kids’ children won’t grow up to be afraid of the water.

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We have to change the relationship the black community has with the water. Before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, we were the best swimmers (Kevin Dawson has done extensive research on this). BKS is working to end this tradition of black people fearing the water.

VSB: That was very informative, to say the least. Before we get into more of what it is you all do and how you do it, let’s get right to the very basic need for this type of site and organization to exist: Why do you think black kids “fear the water?” Is it a real fear or one that we’ve more or less come to believe?

ER: Through BKS we do a lot of education and outreach—talk to a bunch of parents and kids. I’ve even taken beginners swim classes with adults to get to know how people reach adulthood without being able to swim. There’s three main reasons why our community avoids the water: 1) They had a traumatic experience in the water and they almost drowned. Someone threw them in the water trying “teach” them how to swim; 2) Someone in their family drowned and either they are too scared to get in the water or their family refused to allow anyone to get in the water after the tragedy to keep them “safe”; and 3) They grew up without exposure to swimming—splash parks and water amusement parks don’t count—and now they are a bit intimidated.

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These are real fears and we have to address them—namely a more compassionate method of teaching swimming.

According to Safe Kids Worldwide, about 1,000 kids drown every year. The majority of those drownings happen in open water where black kids (especially boys) are twice as likely to drown.

We make up 13 percent of the country, 34 percent of the prison population and the majority of drownings in pools and open water. We are barely present in collegiate swimming, either as athletes or coaches and Howard University is the only HBCU with a swim team.

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VSB: Given the statistics, what have you seen since the inception of the site and your outreach in changing the tide, so to speak, of how we as a community view swimming? I guess, in your own estimation, how impactful have you been in just this short amount of time?

ER: In just three years we’ve totally changed what people (or at least Google) think when you say (or type) “Black Kids Swim.” Returns used to be strictly news reports of drowning and not-so-funny videos about stereotypes. Now you see something very positive, something we want to continue to build on.

Our site and social media channels have kept young black swimmers and their families up to date with the achievements of black swimmers and, more importantly, introduced them to black swimmers from around the world they hadn’t heard of. It may sound simple—but we create and share a ton of photos and videos of black kids and elite swimmers dominating in competitions. Where else can you find that? Other than Simone Manuel, Leah Neal, Anthony Ervin, Alia Atkinson, Reece Whitley, Justin Lynch, the Matella siblings and a handful of others—who are the household names in black swimming?

Our largest impact has been with swimmers under the age of 13. We’ve seen more kids at a very young age wanting to try the sport, and stick with the sport, because of what they see on our site and social media channels. We host an annual Summer Swim Fair and every year more kids come through to sign up. We also give scholarships for kids to be on summer swim teams because the sport can be prohibitively expensive.

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Even better, kids who typically only swim during the summer are beginning to swim year round. We’ve also seen a big increase in attendance of at the Black History Swim Meet and the National Black Heritage Invitational swim meet.

VSB: So where do you see Black Kids Swim going? Or where would you like to see the site and organization go?

ER: We want to continue to grow the black swim community and continue to be the go-to source for all things black swim. That entails meeting the needs of swimmers, their parents, teams, coaches, schools and fans by providing information, products and events.

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We’re fortunate to have members and volunteers across the country. We’d like to mobilize these amazing parents and coaches to host events such as the summer swim fair and other fun events that encourage kids and their families to get in the water and try the sport of competitive swimming.

VSB: You mentioned to me that you’re doing a fundraiser of sorts this month. Tell me more about that.

ER: Yes! We are raising money for the Black Kids Swim Scholarship Fund. Funds are used to help kids join summer swim teams. Summer swimming is the perfect way to strengthen your kids swim skills while introducing them to the sport of competitive swimming. And it’s a ton of fun for the kids. We want all of our kids to have the summer swim experience and money shouldn’t be a barrier.

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To support please visit the BKS store and make a purchase. From now until Jan. 31, 20 percent of all proceeds will go to the scholarship fund.

When we founded BKS in 2013 we were inundated with questions about hair care. In response, we created a hair care line (Eban Shield) and process (Soak, Coat, Cover) specifically to protect black hair from chlorine damage. The Eban Total Hair Care System for Swimmers is the first and only hair-care system for black swimmers. These products are available in the BKS store.

Additionally, we accept donations through our website. We’ve raised close to $3,000 so far and our goal is $10,000 by Feb. 1.

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VSB: Any last things you think are important to add?

ER: Thank you for spreading the word about Black Kids Swim! I’d love to look at the U.S. Olympic swim team and collegiate swim teams 20 years from now and see our kids well represented.

We’re working to change each of these obstacles. And we’re grateful for your support.