Swimming with sharks

It used to be widely believed that if you threw a black person into the water, he would automatically sink to the bottom. That’s just one of the many stereotypes associated with African-Americans and swimming.

In the world of sports and athletics, racist attitudes and stereotypes have played a major role in shaping perceptions about which sporting events are more suited for a particular culture. For making racist remarks, commentators such as CBS’s Jimmy ‘The Greek’ Snider have lost their jobs and pro athletes such as Atlanta Braves pitcher John Rocker have been condemned and fined.

The list is long and includes the misconception that blacks cannot swim. It’s true that in the world of sports, African-Americans are rarely associated with aquatics. Even some African-Americans have bought into the stereotype and been reluctant to swim. In 1978, funk pioneer George Clinton scored with a top 10 R&B hit titled ‘Aqua Boogie (A Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadoloop).’ The satirical song playfully examined black folks’ paranoia with the water. The song revolves around one of Clinton’s fictional characters, Sir Nose, who hates water and states he is too cool to swim. ‘I can’t swim, I never could swim, I never will swim,’ he proudly boasts.

Sadly, Clinton’s observations are somewhat on point. African-Americans have participated and made great accomplishments in other non-traditional sports (golf, tennis, wrestling). However, in the sport of swimming and diving, the progress has been slow. There have been no African-Americans inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., and no African-American has ever won an Olympic medal in swimming or diving. There has never been an African-American on the U.S. Olympic swimming or diving team.

‘The late Chris Silva would have been the first African-American to represent the United States,’ says local swim coach Leonard Horne. ‘He was on the 1980 Olympic team but the United States boycotted the Olympics in Moscow in protest of the Soviet Union’s involvement in Afghanistan.’

Three members of the Central High School swim team have aspirations of one day making the U.S. swim and diving Olympic team. Seventeen-year-old senior Albert Lowe, 17-year-old junior Virgil Taylor, and 16-year-old sophomore Joseph Hathaway understand the challenges that face them in their trek to become highly trained athletes who can compete at the Olympic level.

But the young athletes not only face obstacles in the water, they also have to deal with challenges outside of the pool — the lure of street culture, coping with broken families and overcoming a chaotic educational system.

The Kansas City, Mo., School District (KCMSD) devised a plan to turn fledgling athletes into Olympic-caliber champions. The district created a program called ‘Classical Greek,’ which focused on enhancing the mind and building the body.

But the program was cut after seven years. Lowe, Taylor, and Hathaway have weathered the storm of budget cuts. Their commitment remains to advance in a sport in which African-Americans have not traditionally gravitated toward and to excel at the highest level of competition.

It’s 3 o’clock on a typical winter afternoon. School is out. Most of the 1,200 students who attend Central Computers Unlimited High School (the current name), in the heart of the urban core, have gone home. A few students remain to participate in after-school activities. In the gymnasium the boys basketball team practices under the leadership of legendary coach Jack Bush, who has produced some of the area’s best ballers for 30 years. The players dazzle onlookers with spectacular dunks and three-point shots.

In the natatorium the atmosphere is the different. There is no rah-rah hysteria. It’s quiet, almost as if the pool facility were empty. Taylor is stretching his thin angular body, while Lowe and Hathaway, both short but muscular, work on perfecting their starts on the blocks. They explode off of the starting blocks and enter the water barely creating a splash. They repeat the starting exercise until their coach, Stacy Berry, walks over and tells them to begin their warm-up laps. Lowe and Hathaway begin churning out laps, moving through the water like dolphins.

Choosing to swim competitively has bought the three young men ridicule among their peers. Swimming, as a sport, is typically shunned by many African-Americans who have little understanding or respect for its rigors. This lack of knowledge about the sport has fed the ignorance.

“A lot of students say that swimming is a gay sport,” says Lowe. “They say we are gay because we have to wear Speedos. But I don’t care because it just motivates me to keep my body fit. Plus, the girls like the way we look in them.”

Despite the ridicule from peers, Lowe and Hathaway stick to their swimming goals and Taylor continues to defy gravity with his spectacular dives. The Central team practices every day for two and half hours. The three teens often leave practice at Central, and head to the Roeland Park Aquatics Center in Roeland Park, Kan., for more training time.

“I often practice twice a day,” says Lowe. “I gotta do it to get better.”

Hathaway also double-dips and Taylor puts in extra work with noted diving specialist Tom “Dr. Dive” Hairabedian, considered the area’s top diving coach. The 75-year-old War World II veteran still dives and has won 110 national and seven world titles in master diving.

On a bright, unusually warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in January the Central High parking lot is filled to capacity, crammed with sport utility vehicles and minivans, many with Johnson County license plates. The scene seems odd — soccer mothers in the hood.

Inside the steamy hot natatorium, the MO/KAN Invitational is taking place. The bleachers are jammed with parents and coaches sitting on the edge of their seats as they watch the swimmers and divers compete.

The competition is intense: Only the best male swimmers in the Midwest are competing. (The girls swim season is separate from the boys and officially started Feb. 14.) The swimmers warm up in the pool, leisurely swimming laps. Divers perform simple dives to get loose. Everyone exits the pool when a voice over the public address system asks the crowd to stand for the playing of the national anthem. As the anthem begins, everyone gazes at the American flag hanging over the pool’s glistening water. Crowd representation seems un-American. There are only a few African-Americans, and no Hispanics or Asians in the stands. Of the more than 400 participants in the meet, only six are African-American.

Lowe, Taylor and Hathaway are used to the environment and the attention they get. “You have to work a little bit harder because we are always being seen. Everywhere we go, people look at us, because we stand out like a sore thumb at swim meets,” says Lowe. “You do feel more pressure, because you know you have eyes on you all the time, but it makes it more exciting for me because everyone is watching.”

At the MO/KAN Invitational none of the three appeared unusually nervous. They performed well. Lowe and Taylor qualified for the state competition, Lowe in the 100-yard butterfly and Taylor in diving. Hathaway turned in a solid performance in the 50-yard and 100-yard free-style but it was not good enough to qualify for state. Overall, their talent came through, considering that the season got off to a slow start because of funding problems. Money for the swim coach position along with the entire physical education swim program was cut by the KCMSD school board at the end of the 1998 school year.

After the cuts, some district officials were uneasy about not letting the students utilize the multi-million dollar pool facility. The district also received pressure from principal Willie Bowie who felt it was unfair that outside organizations had access to the pool but the students who attended the school could not use the facility. The swim program and coaching position were reinstated by the Desegregation Monitoring Committee after languishing for over a year.

“I have managed pools and coached swim teams during the summer for most of my life,” says Berry who coaches the swim and diving team and teaches all levels of swimming as part of the school’s physical education component. But reinstating the swim program in November crippled the team since the swim season began on Nov. 1. “We were late getting started with practice,” Berry says. “More than two weeks behind everyone else. To a swimmer, that is a lot of time.”

Despite the delayed start, team members hadn’t been sitting poolside. “We compete all year,” says Lowe. “There are private clubs, and we participate in USS (United States Swimming) meets during the summer.” However, the late start caused the trio to miss out on invaluable formal instruction.

“These young men train all year and have a ton of experience,” says Berry. “So my job as coach is to help them work on endurance and help perfect their technique.”

Training all year is common for young athletes but it is a necessity for the members of Central’s swim team who are desperately trying to catch up with their peers, most of whom all began swimming competitively years before Lowe, Taylor, and Hathaway began to compete. “Most swimmers and divers start when they are really young,” says Berry. “These guys all started pretty late.”

“I started swimming when I was 10, and I was way behind, and I’m still behind all the other swimmers my age,” says Lowe. “My mother and I found out about swimming competitively at the Black Expo. She started talking with Whitney Watkins’ (a senior on the Park Hill swim team) mother, who told my mother that he had just competed in a swim meet and she suggested that I start swimming competitively.”

Lowe started competing when he was 11 at a USS meet. He took swimming lessons at the Central pool facility and was taught by swim guru Leonard Horne. “Albert came to me when he was 10 years old,” says Horne. “He was afraid of his own shadow — he was extremely shy. His parents were hoping I could get him to get over his basic fear of water and develop some confidence.”

“At my first meet, I didn’t do well at all,” explains Lowe. “I disqualified my relay team because I swam under the lanes. I swam under two lane lines, which is pretty hard to do. After that I wanted to quit, but my mom made me stick it out and that next year when I was 12 I started dominating.”

He developed quickly. By the time Lowe was 12, his swimming skills were strong, but he decided to abandon them in favor of playing football and lifting weights. “His decision to play football and lift weights interfered with his development as a competitive swimmer,” says Horne. “Only recently has he gotten back on track. He qualified for the state meet but this is something that should have happened two years ago.”

Hathaway began swimming competitively two years ago at 14. “I started real late,” confesses Hathaway. “The people who I compete against have been swimming at meets since they were little kids.”

“He has a natural ease about his stroke,” says Horne. “It wasn’t difficult bringing him up to speed because his body was so supple.”

Hathaway’s goal is to attend college on either a swimming or football scholarship. Hathaway plays linebacker and tight end, and admits he prefers football. But Hathaway wants to work harder to become as good a swimmer as he is a football player.

Diver Virgil Taylor began with ambitions of becoming a swimmer but was converted into a diver when his elementary school (Pitcher Elementary School) swim team coach, at that time Horne, caught him flipping off the starting blocks into the pool during practice.

“Virgil has been the only diver to stick with it,” says Horne. “We’ve had kids come in and go out but there was something different about Virgil. He stuck with it and has gotten better. Under the direction of Dr. Dive, Virgil has really blossomed. Now his inner drive must kick in, and he has to push himself to get to the next level.”

It was Horne who introduced Taylor to Hairabedian. They developed a bond and have worked together for six years. Taylor learned how to swim when he was 10 and started diving competitively when he was 12. His background in gymnastics helped him develop into a diver.

Taylor was inspired by watching a tape of superstar diver Greg Louganis performing in the Olympic games. “I could flip real good so I figured I could do what he was doing, too,” says Taylor.

Louganis’ performance fooled Taylor, who soon found out the sport was more complicated and difficult than he initially imagined. “Diving is not as easy as most people think. It requires a lot of discipline. When I first began I just jumped on the board, ran off, and almost killed myself.”

Under the intense coaching of Hairabedian, Taylor has worked hard to perfect his dives. “It’s easy to make a mistake in diving,” says Taylor. “Just one wrong step or turn a little too far, and smack, right on your stomach.”

During the MO/KAN Invitational Taylor tried a reverse two and a half and made a crucial mistake, landing flat on his back. “I had a bad approach,” he explains. Even though Taylor hit the water in a stretched-out, horizontal position that caused pain, he exited the water with a smile. The ill-fated dive was scratched and Taylor placed seventh, scoring enough points to qualify for state.

Being a perfectionist, Taylor watched his unsuccessful dive on video a number of times, examining what he did wrong. It’s that kind of tenacity, combined with talent, that helped him place fifth in state competition last year and 28th in national United States Diving (USD) competition in 1998. He did not compete in ’99 because he worked as a lifeguard at the Gregg Community Center. Taylor plans to compete this summer.

“Virgil has good elevation. He can get higher than most divers. He can go places. He has enough talent to get a college scholarship,” says Hairabedian, who dove for the University of Southern California and coached at Central Missouri State for 25 years.

“Virgil can do a triple twisting forward one and a half somersault and put it in like it’s nothing — that takes a lot of strength and skill. It’s taken him about six years to get there. Last year he couldn’t do it. Next year he will be doing more. He is doing a reverse two and a half. Very few guys can do that dive at the high school level.”

Hathaway, Lowe and Taylor all chose to attend Central because of the school’s athletic program. All three initially enrolled in the KCMSD district to pursue their interest in swimming. The district’s now-defunct magnet program was designed to attract athletes like the three and turn them into Olympic-caliber champions.

In 1984, U.S. District Court Judge Russell Clark forced the state of Missouri to build new schools, creating a glorious era for the KCMSD. The district spent billions of dollars on building 16 new schools and remodeling more than 50 schools as part of the massive magnet program that stemmed from the desegregation ruling. One of the more impressive schools built was Central High School, which was constructed in 1990 at 3221 Indiana Ave. The school was designed to function as two schools in one — with computer and athletic components.

Central received more attention than any of the new facilities built. The school was written about in national magazines and 60 Minutes’ correspondent Lesley Stahl did a piece on the facility in 1994.

It’s a school with a rich historical past. Established in 1867, Central is the oldest high school west of the Mississippi River. Distinguished graduates include baseball manager Casey Stengel, science fiction writer Robert D. Heinlein, and actor Dick Powell. Walt Disney also attended Central but did not graduate. The school was attended by Kansas City’s white elite until the Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education decision in 1954. The first African-Americans attended the school in 1956 and by 1962 the student body was predominately black, according to school historian Rhonda Montgomery.

The new facility, the sixth building of Central’s legacy, is a marvelous facility. The 290,000-square-foot school, designed in the shape of a circle, cost approximately $32 million. The modernistic school is state of the art, with high-tech computer equipment and training facilities that rival the Olympic Training Center in Colorado.

The athletic component was designed to be a training ground for students who participated in select Olympic sports (swimming, gymnastics, wrestling, fencing, karate, cycling, archery, etc.). “The idea was to attract the best athletes in the city and expose them to new types of sports,” says principal Bowie.

The school district recruited and hired Olympic trainers and highly specialized coaches who were experts in their fields from all over the world to train students. The school features a gymnastic facility, a weight-lifting room, racquetball courts, handball courts and an indoor track, including a long jump pit. The crowning achievement is the indoor pool facility, which many consider the best in the state.

“The facility has all the equipment you need and it’s great for training,” says Hairabedian, who coached diving at Central from 1991 to 1997. The 50-meter (164 feet) Olympic-size pool contains eight 7-foot-wide lanes with a bulkhead in the middle, an electronic score board with 11 lines, two 1-meter and 3-meter springboards and a 5-meter platform with a superb lighting and sound system.

“This is a very fast pool and what makes it fast is the gutter system which is designed to swallow the waves,” says Tom Horn, former Central swim coach, pool tech and facility coordinator. “Typical pools have water inlets on the side. Central’s pool has them on the bottom and pushes the water up which creates a lift for the swimmers.”

“At the time it was built, it was the number one high school facility in the country,” says Hairabedian. “It’s still one of the top facilities, and I would hate to see it go to waste.”

The idea of the district’s Classical Greek theme was to have a student with athletic ability be able to train from kindergarten through 12th grade. This continuous training would hopefully produce students who would eventually compete in the Olympics or at least at the Olympic level of competition.

The Classical Greek program was designed with a feeder system. Three elementary schools, a middle school and high school were built with pools and similar training facilities. The three elementary schools (Gladstone, Satchel Paige and Pitcher) were to feed students into the middle school (Paul Robeson). Students from the middle school would feed into the high school (Central).

“That was the chain that was to be followed, but the best-laid plans often do not work,” says Horne. “The middle school never opened under the magnet program due to construction problems. By the time all of the schools were on-line, the magnet program had been killed.”

“The program was working, but it wasn’t given a chance,” said Tom Horn, who coached the Central swim team from 1993 to 1997. “The program was cut before you could possibly measure the results.”

According to Horne, not one student made it through the complete Classical Greek cycle. “Whitney Watkins made it from kindergarten to the ninth grade and swam one season for Central under the deseg banner,” says Horne. “But that is as far as any student got who started from the root up.”

The Classical Greek program reintroduced competitive swimming to the Interscholastic League (IL), the governing body of the KCMSD athletic programs. The last IL boys swimming championship was in 1976. There was never an organized girls IL championship.

The now-closed Southwest High School had a tradition of producing a strong swim team and won the state championship in 1969, the first school on the western side of Missouri to win the title. “The reason Southwest used to dominate the league was because the area used to be where many of the elite lived, and their kids swam at the private country clubs that spawned the old swim programs,” says Ben Ireland, who taught at Southwest from 1964 to 1989. He was the swim coach from 1978-83.

“The IL never really cared that much about swimming. Most of the schools had swimmers who swam at the novice level,” says Ireland. “Southwest won the league championship every year.”

African-American participation in IL swimming was nonexistent. However, the school district produced one prominent black swimmer. “Whenever we competed in state, Ernie Baskerville (who attended Southwest in the mid-’70s) would be the only black swimmer to compete in the state meet,” remembers Ireland. “I don’t believe any other African-Americans competed in state until the mid-’80s.”

The Classical Greek program may have provided students with an opportunity for new exposure, but state officials, citizens and the media were unimpressed by the results. Several district officials, who asked not to be named, said “jealousy and envy predicated on racist attitudes was the main reason the magnet themes were cut.” A common perception was that the district was gaining an unfair advantage by receiving millions of dollars from the state.

In the federal court ruling that dismissed the desegregation lawsuit in November 1999, U.S. District Judge Dean Whipple stated that the district did not adequately meet academic standards or show any progress and that time was up. But money to run school district programs had begun to diminish before Whipple’s ruling.

A number of talented swimmers attended Central during the well-funded magnet era but only a handful remained once the swim program was shut down at the end of the 1997-98 school year. Seventeen year-old Watkins left Central after his freshman year and transferred to Park Hill High School because he wanted to continue competing and Central no longer had a swim team. Watkins has become one of the areas top swimmers.

“Whitney is the most prolific swimmer to come through the Greek program,” says Horne.

There is pride and joy in Horne’s voice but his face displays disappointment as he imagines the possibilities of what could have been. “Freshmen Kenneth Ellis, who now attends Oak Park High School, recently began swimming competitively after a two-and-a-half-year lay-off,” says Horne. “He was the USS state champion in the 11-12 age group in the 50-meter breast stroke in 1996.”

Horne shakes his head in disgust and remembers another student who jumped ship when school district money dried up. “Junior Ryan Carter now attends O’Hara High School and he no longer competes in USA Swimming (formerly USS),” Horne says. “If the magnet program would have stayed in place, it would have helped hold things together. Every time there is a pause, the kids find something else to do.”

Horne believes he would have had a dynamite team at Central if the magnet program had continued. Instead of winning state championships in a sport not traditionally dominated by African-Americans, the program sank to the bottom of the pool. “When the deseg money ended, everyone fled the district,” he says.

After the magnet program ended, Central was never the same, according to Bowie. A large percentage of students, teachers, and administrators left. Millions of dollars’ worth of archery, cycling, gymnastic, and other sports equipment now sits unused, collecting dust.

“We need the magnet theme back. It feels like we are being punished for something we didn’t do,” says Lowe. “It’s hard to look at all the equipment this school has and not get upset. It’s all locked up not being used.”

“All of the athletic programs and expert coaches vanished,” says Taylor. “It was terrible.” Hairabedian, Taylor’s diving coach, was one of the instructors who left after the program was slashed. Hairabedian currently coaches diving at Lee’s Summit High School.

“I talked to a teacher who has been here for 10 years and her comment was that this is such a different school now that the desegregation money is gone,” says Berry. “The school lost 50 to 75 percent of its top students.”

“When the deseg was thrown out of the door, it killed the future of competitive swimmers who could have trained year round from kindergarten to 12th grade,” says Horne. “High school is very late to start talking about being a competitive swimmer because your competition has been swimming since birth. It is a highly skilled sport and to develop that skill requires years. To be introduced to it at this level is like starting school in the ninth grade; you are at an extreme disadvantage. You are at such a disadvantage that you’ll be discouraged to stick it out.”

Bowie feels that the athletic component should not have been cut because now the facilities are not being utilized. “It should not have been built like it was if we (the district) were not going to utilize it and continue to fund it,” he says. “There were people who knew in the long run that the monies might dry up.”

The best part of the Classical Greek theme was it exposed students to sports they had never been introduced to. “I sure wanted to continue playing on the water polo team but all of the coaches left,” says Lowe, who played on the team only during his freshman year. “Now the equipment is just sitting there going to waste. This school had everything. It was lovely. Now it’s just sad.”

For a time, the pool facility was being used by various area swim clubs and organizations but not by the Central student body. “To me it was ludicrous to have a state-of-the-art Olympic-size pool and not be able to let our students have use (of it). If it was built for us, we ought to be able to use it,” says Bowie, who was instrumental in getting the swim program reinstated last year. “My next move is to bring back the gymnastic component. The facility is second to none and (is) locked up not being used.”

The magnet program and deseg funding may have ended, but all of the facilities remained. The biggest concern for Central was having money for maintenance to keep the pool operational. The school has funding to operate the swim program for the 1999-2000 school year.

It is a blustery and frigid January evening, but inside the Central High School natatorium, it is as hot and humid as the tropics. The pool water is a sparkling, postcard blue.

The atmosphere is intense. A group of children are working on their endurance, swimming laps in the pool. They are a part of The Kansas City Storm Swim Team and their coach is Horne. He’s a large man, an intimidating figure with a strong, authoritative voice.

“Everyone in the water now!” he commands the young swimmers. Horne, 44, is a strict taskmaster who demands perfection. “You are breathing every third stroke,” he bellows as he instructs the students for their next set of laps.

The swimmers take off at Horne’s “set/hut.” Then he begins blowing his whistle in rapid bursts that pierce the ear. Heat after heat of swimmers take off — one in each of the eight lanes of the pool. The swimmers execute perfect technique as Horne paces on the side of the pool examining their performance. “You need to start off with a strong flutter kick,” explains Horne. “Don’t go deep, go long.”

The swimmers seem exhausted, but they are instructed to stay in the water. “You are going down again. This time you are breathing every five strokes, so you can swim faster,” Horne commands. “Set/hut” and the sharp whistle bursts begin again.

As the swimmers finish their laps, they relax and begin playing around. “Quiet!” Horne yells. “If I have to ask you to be quiet at this stage, I’m going to have to ask you to come back tomorrow. We are about business.”

The swimmers immediately snap to attention. “I have to see strong kicks when you leave the wall. Keep your head straight and stationary, elbows up high and maintain a steady flutter kick,” Horne instructs.

With Horne, it’s all work and no play. Practices are tough and demanding but Horne gets results. The team regularly does well in competition.

He has been coaching since 1979. He has coached the Kansas City team since 1987, dividing his time between the team and his full-time job as a pool tech at Robeson Middle School. Although the team is ethnically diverse, almost every African-American swimmer in the area who has swum competitively on the high school level has been coached by Horne.

This year’s team has 32 registered swimmers ranging in age from 6 to 18. Twenty-two of the students compete, the rest are working up to the competition level. This is the most swimmers the team has had in several years, and Horne is excited about the future.

Watching the workout in street clothes is Whitney Watkins. He went through the program as a child and occasionally works out with the team. Watkins, a senior at Park Hill High School, is the preeminent African-American swimmer in the region. At the MO/KAN Invitational, Watkins qualified for state in the 100-yard butterfly, finishing first and demolishing his personal best time by more than one second. His was the top time in the event in the Kansas City area this season. Last year, Watkins finished second in state. He developed his swimming skills under Horne’s coaching.

During the cool down, Horne plays jazz over the P.A. system as the swimmers swim their final laps. He first became involved in swimming while growing up in Detroit, Mich. Horne’s mother taught him to swim at age 4 with his two siblings. From that point on, he says, they hung out at the pool. Horne played organized water polo but did not swim competitively at the high school level.

“The rec center swim program had kind of ran its course by the time I was of age to be a part of it. It no longer existed because it was a park and recreation program and did not have the built-in structures of traditional club swimming in the United States,” says Horne.

“You gotta understand this was during the ’60s. So accessibility to the sport for people of color was not like it is today. Today, it is a lot easier to be a part of the sport. When I was coming along, swimming was considered a white-collar and off-limits sport for people of color for the most part.”

Horne spent his spare time in the Brewster Recreation Center, a place known for producing great athletes like boxers Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson and Portland Trail Blazer Johnny Davis. The center was located across the street from his house. “I saw the best of the best in every sport, be it swimming, basketball, baseball, football, or boxing at the community center. It was a birthing ground for some of the greatest athletes that America has ever produced.

“In Detroit, participation in swimming was tremendous with people of color,” says Horne. “The first guy I ever saw swim under 53 seconds in the 100-meter free-style was a black man, and he was my neighbor.”

Horne’s interest in swimming faded as a teenager. But he rediscovered the sport in college. “I didn’t get reintroduced to competitive swimming until my junior year in college in the late ’70s,” he says. “My next door neighbor growing up was my roommate in college, and he said, ‘Why don’t you come on back to the pool.’ He was an All-American swimmer. He lured me back to the pool with the caveat that there needed to be a diversification on the beaches of Los Angeles. They needed lifeguards of color. There was a lot of pressure at the time to hire black lifeguards.”

Although Horne trained for 10 months, he never went to Los Angeles. “As I began to do this training, which was not a ‘Lets go to the pool and frolic’ type deal, I got introduced to what competitive training and competitive swimming was all about,” he explains. “In the process, I got really turned on to the sport of swimming like never before.”

Horne discovered competitive swimming at an age when most people are giving up the sport. “When I was growing up, I never knew that this is what it entailed to develop a competitive swimmer,” he says. “I took the backward route. Instead of coming in as a kid and going out as an adult, I’m coming in as an adult. All of a sudden I went from not knowing what a 200-meter free-style was to being able to repeat sets of them within the prescribed standards set for a male my age.”

In swimming the battle is with yourself. To improve and get better requires a tremendous amount of dedication and commitment.

“You are always working for self-improvement and improving comes down to you, the water and the clock,” says Horne. “The water isn’t going anywhere and the clock will continue to run. So it comes down to how much you are willing to endure to get better as a swimmer.”

Horne arrived in Kansas City in November 1986. He became aquatics director at the only indoor facility in the black community at the time, the Boys & Girls Club located at 43rd and Cleveland. Now, since he began coaching, Horne believes the interest level of competitive swimming has increased.

“There has been more exposure to the sport particularly through television,” he says. “When I was coming along as a kid, the only time that you would really see swimming on television was during the Olympics. Now you see more competitions on television which are not necessarily tied to the Olympics, such as the NCAA swimming and diving championships, the Goodwill games and on the local cable channel Metro Sports, which broadcasts some high school swim meets. These are all things you didn’t see in the past.”

Such exposure highlights successful swimmers of color. “Naturally they have helped increase interest in the sport with African-Americans. Right now Sabir Muhammad has the best shot of making the Olympic team this year,” Horne says. Muhammad is an Atlanta native who graduated from Stanford University, which has one of the best collegiate swim programs in the country.

“He is a product of the city of the Atlanta Dolphins swim club which is a club that caters to the minority community,” says Horne.

The Olympics is the ultimate payoff for swimmers and divers. There is no larger stage or bigger reward for a life spent swimming or diving.

Hathaway, Lowe, and Taylor have thought about winning Olympic gold medals the way other young athletes dream about scoring the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, hitting a game-winning home run in the World Series,w or hoisting the Stanley Cup after a game-winning goal.

The three young athletes understand the realities of their sport. “I used to think about swimming in the Olympics. Not anymore because, number one, I’m so far behind. When I was younger I thought I was catching up. It’s hard to catch up. You got to understand that shaving one or two seconds off of your time can take a lifetime. It took me four years to drop one or two seconds,” says Lowe, who has swum against people who have qualified to compete in the Olympic Trials.

“When I was 13, I took a break from swimming and didn’t swim until I was in high school a year later. I should have never done that.”

Hathaway has aspirations of making it to the Olympics. “With hard work, I think I can get to the next level. I’m young and have enough time to really improve,” he says.

“People who are not exposed to the water do not swim,” says Horne. “Competitive swimming requires a trained individual on the deck to develop you. You have to have access to a pool, a knowledgeable coach, those are a luxury.

“With basketball you can hammer up a goal on a pole, and there is your basketball court. You can’t do that with swimming.”

Swimming needs a lightning-bolt role model. African-American participation in the sport would possibly increase if a Michael Jordan-, Tiger Woods- or Venus Williams-type figure came along. Horne believes that person is Sabir Muhammad.

“If Muhammad goes to the Olympics, the interest in competitive swimming may pick up with blacks,” says Horne.

But it may take more than a swimmer winning gold medals to change cultural perceptions of swimming.

“Many African-Americans think the only time we should go to the swimming pool is in the summer when it is a 100 degrees,” says Horne. “We don’t understand that swimming is a recreational sport that can be pursued year-round if you allow yourself to develop the necessary skills that it takes to enjoy the water.”

African-American male participation in swimming has grown steadily. Getting female participation has been a tougher challenge. “It’s hard to get high school girls to come out for a sport. Swimming is foreign to so many of our people. Black girls want to swim in a T-shirt over the swimming suit, not put their face in the water and don’t want their hair to get wet,” says Horne.

“I found that black girls have a lot of issues and concerns at the high school level when it came to getting in the water. The few that came out to seriously swim realized that this isn’t to play with, it’s serious and you loose them.”

“A lot of people think learning how to swim is like instant potatoes and it’s not. You have to put in work. People must understand that just because you take swimming lessons for two weeks does not make you an expert swimmer and that you have to take swim lessons continuously until you become a proficient swimmer.”

Adds Horne, “There is a lot of fruit wasted on the vine — there are a lot of potential gold-medalists, but it’s a tough stereotype to break through to get the students to swim.”

African-Americans tend to gravitate toward other sports. “The first year of the magnet program at Central, there were 275 people who tried out for the basketball team, and we got two students to try out (for the swim team) and it’s been no better than that since,” says Horne.

African-Americans’ lack of interest in swimming has often been attributed to lack of exposure and facilities. “Most black people I know don’t know how to swim because the schools they attend do not have swimming facilities so they never get a chance to learn,” says Lowe.

However, Horne disputes that claim. “In Kansas City, Missouri, those two issues may have been a legitimate factor several years ago but not anymore. Lack of facilities is not a valid excuse anymore. Now the challenge is getting people to utilize the pools.”

Since the mid-’90s the number of pools available for use has increased. The Parks and Recreation Department in Kansas City, Mo., operates 18 pools (17 outdoor, and one indoor), and two new pools will open by the end of this year, including the new Westside indoor facility.

The KCMSD operates six fairly new indoor pools, including the Central High School facility, all built in the early ’90s.

Although there are more than 20 pools available for public use many African-Americans still find wading in the city’s public fountains more attractive than going to the pool. A key factor is cost of admission.

“African-Americans have always had an interest in swimming, it just has not been recognized by the powers that be. Swimming is the number one recreational sport for children in the world,” says Horne.

“This water can take them so far in life — it’s incredible the discipline that you garner from training. There is a certain amount of fortitude that is developed to allow you to cope with the water and that strengthens the kid in all areas of life,” says Horne.

“Most of the kids on our swim team are extremely motivated in the classroom and excel academically. Collectively, our GPA as a team is above 3.2. They come out of the public as well as private schools. You hear all of the horror stories about ‘You can’t get a decent education in the public schools.’ Well, these kids don’t fall into that pattern and are excelling academically and athletically.

“Black people not being able to swim is a big myth,” says Horne. “When it comes to what the human is capable of doing, we all have the ability to perform. It’s all about having the opportunity to develop and reach those levels, and a lot of it starts in your own community and what opportunities are available for you to take advantage of in your life.”

Contact Shawn Edwards at 816-218-6778 or shawn.edwards@pitch.com.Swimming with sharksBeing a young African-American competitive swimmer or diver is like swimming in shark-infested waters. But three members of Central High School’s swim team do it every day.

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