N.C. A&T State University’s swim team had hoped to go out with a bang, not just a splash, in its season-ending meet against rival Howard University Saturday.
The Aggies, the only all-black NCAA Division I swim program, hit the water with extra determination because Saturday’s heats were the last competitive laps the team will swim at the Greensboro campus’s Corbett Sports Center as the university is ending its swim program.
“We swam our hearts out,” Victoria Orr, a 22-year-old Charlotte native and Aggies co-captain said of the final regular season meet. The final score of the meet was 110-87, Howard.
“It was bittersweet and sad, also. But I think everyone enjoyed it. We even had an alumni race. That was fun because that will be the last time they swim in the pool, too.”
The university is disbanding the swim program to instead focus on sports that can win Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championships. The MEAC doesn’t have a swimming title. While subtracting swimming, A&T is reinstating men’s tennis and adding men’s golf, women’s golf, and women’s soccer.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Aarica Carrington, a senior co-captain from Baltimore, of the swim team’s end. “But we feel we’ve broken a lot of barriers and, if this is it, we can go out with a bang.”
And the wake from N.C. A&T’s decision is sending ripples through the Charlotte swimming community. The Queen City Dolphins, a minority swim team out of the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center, has been a feeder program A&T, sending Orr and two other swimmers to the Greensboro campus.
“Eliminating that program almost pretty much eliminates my program,” said Marcus Green, a Dolphins coach. “It’s pretty heartbreaking when I have a next generation of girls who I can be sending to North Carolina A&T for the next 20 years, that’s not an option anymore. The biggest thing is the motivation for these kids…the opportunity to participate on the college level. If A&T were there, that would be a good opportunity.”
The Aggies aren’t the best swim team – the 11-woman squad has a 1-6 record this season – but its members and supporters say they measure the program’s success by more than wins and losses.
The team has served as a myth-buster, they say, shattering falsehoods that African-Americans can’t swim and that African-American women, in particular, want nothing to do with aquatics because the water would mess up their hair.
“Black girls swim!” Orr declared. “A lot of people, when they hear I’m an athlete, the first thing they say is, ‘Oh, basketball or volley ball?’ I tell them I swim. They stop in their tracks – ‘You swim? You get your hair wet?’ Black girls swim. I love it.”
A shocking low point: In 1987, Los Angeles Dodgers then-General Manager Al Campanis said on ABC’s “Nightline” that African-Americans don’t have the buoyancy to swim.
The stereotype about African-Americans and water reached perhaps its lowest depth in 1987 when the late Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis said on ABC’s “Nightline” that African-Americans don’t have the buoyancy to swim as an example of how blacks are lacking some skills.
“We want to break barriers,” said Kenya Dunn, a 22-year-old sports science senior and former Queen City Dolphins swimmer. “We’re trying to set an example for the younger generation, especially young up-and-coming black girls, that you can do something other than basketball, track, whatever. We definitely want to leave a legacy.”
The Aggie women also prided themselves on being role models who encouraged other African-Americans to get in the pool and take swim lessons. U.S. health officials and the nation’s competitive swimming governing body have sought for years to get more African-Americans – especially children – involved in swim lessons to reduce high drowning rates within the community.
A 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that young African-Americans drown in pools at a rate 5.5 times higher than whites, which experts chalk up to economics and the lack of access to swimming facilities and classes.
In 2010, a USA Swimming Foundation study reported that 70 percent of African-American children and nearly 60 percent of Hispanic children have no or low swimming ability.
We’re also fighting against early in this country’s history where we were denied access to the point that we were literally beaten and attacked when we tried to use pools and beaches.
Nicolas Askew, Howard University’s swim coach
“North Carolina A&T and us serve as a unique image to people to aspire to because we’re breaking down years and years of myths that black people don’t swim, that black people can’t swim,” said Nicolas Askew, Howard University’s swim coach. “We’re also fighting against early in this country’s history where we were denied access to the point that we were literally beaten and attacked when we tried to use pools and beaches.”
Orr said African-American parents have come up to N.C. A&T swim team members at meets to tell them “my daughter really looks up to you guys.’”
Throughout the season, N.C. A&T swim coach Shawn Hendrix has referred to her squad as her “Legacy Ladies.” And her swimmers half-jokingly call themselves the “Last of a Dying Breed” because of the miniscule numbers of collegiate African-American swimmers.
180 African-Americans among 12,428 NCAA female swimmers in 2014-15
214 African-Americans among 9,715 NCAA male swimmers in 2014-15
Of the 12,428 female swimmers who competed in all NCAA divisions in 2014-15, 180 were African-American. Only 214 of the NCAA’s 9,715 male swimmers in 2014-15 were African-American.
“A lot of my girls in certain states have been the only African-American on their team,” Hendrix said. “Being here, being among other African-American women, having the camaraderie, having the team, it’s a different pride. It’s almost like we’re going against the grain or we’re going against what society thinks. There’s a sense of family, a relationship.”
The small numbers helped foster a sisterhood of the pool at N.C. A&T, a bond so strong that Emani Davies, a 19-year-old marketing sophomore and ex-Queen City Dolphins swimmer, joined the program knowing it would end before she graduates.
“I knew what to expect,” she said. “I just wanted to come here. I just wanted to be part of the team.”
The Aggie swimmers grateful that program lasted long enough for the seniors to be able to take their last laps in the Corbett Sports Center pool but sad that underclassmen like Davies won’t be able to enjoy the experience of a full four years on the team.
The Aggie swimmers will compete later this month in the Coastal Collegiate Championships in Athens, Ga. But Saturday’s loss marked the end of an era at A&T, though Orr begs to differ.
“I know they’re going to bring it back,” she said. “If it’s 20 years from now, 30 years from now, they’re going to bring this program back. People love swimming, black people love swimming.”
William Douglas: 202-549-4584, @williamgdouglas