A Prince George’s pool builds an African American swimming powerhouse

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Amanda Barber as Amanda Butler.


In a congratulatory tradition, Amanda Barber runs through a gauntlet of teammates after breaking the league record for the 100 yard freestyle at the Lake Arbor Community Pool in Mitchellville, Md. (Doug Kapustin/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
July 19, 2012

They drive their kids to swim team practice at 5 a.m. And bring them back to the pool at night for more .

The Kingfish parents buy everything in orange, the team color. Sandals, shoes, purses, pants, hats. And they wear all of it, even to practice.

They create spreadsheets, newsletters, bar graphs and a Web site, which began counting down the days and hours to the first swim practice sometime back in February. They even have a team sandwich — The King Fishwich.

Five years ago, the Kingfish swam in the least competitive division in the Prince-Mont Swim League.

“We’d set out a table by the Giant, trying to recruit swimmers,” said Calvin Holmes, intense swim parent extraordinaire and president of the swim club. “And people would just walk by us. Or think we were selling fish.”

This summer, after going undefeated for three consecutive years, they are swimming in the league’s most competitive division. Now the swimmers come to them, from miles around, to the Lake Arbor pool in Mitchelleville.

The team’s rapid ascent is even more notable because almost all the kids on it are African American. And I didn’t talk to a single parent who swam competitively as a kid.

“I never thought I’d get into this. I did the traditional sports, you know, basketball, football,” said Anthony Davis, who wore a Kingfish orange bandana and was cutting away from our conversation to videotape his 13-year-old daughter and the other swimmers.

He got her swim lessons after hearing all those stories about black kids drowning because they didn’t know how to swim. She took to the water, and eventually so did he.

Though there are other majority black teams in the Washington area, swimming remains an overwhelmingly white sport. There are just three black swimmers representing the United States at the Olympics in London this month, a record. But those numbers don’t trouble the kids of Kingfish, who have posted a 4-1 record this year.

“I’m not dreaming about being in the Olympics. I’m going to be in the Olympics,” declared Cayla Dious, an 11-year-old swimmer. "Rio. In four years.” Then she headed back to the pool for her next event.

Why aren’t there more black swimmers like Cayla?

“Well, it’s hard with our hair,” offered Amanda Barber, who is 18 and just finished her freshman year at Towson University, where she is a serious swimmer.

Last weekend, at the final Kingfish home meet, Barber broke a pool record, cutting through the water in 54:26 in the 100-yard freestyle.

She was rushed while in the pool, sploshy high-fives and chlorine handshakes. When she hopped out of the pool, her teammates formed a long tunnel with their arms that she ran through as they whooped and cheered.

She said it wasn’t easy to be in the pool every day, when some of her friends refused to go into the water and mess up their carefully styled hair. But she and some other girls on the team created their own club — calling themselves the Flameos — and wearing matching, pink animal print drag shorts. She can’t imagine her life without swimming.

The USA Swimming Foundation laments that “7 out of 10 African-American children cannot swim.”

Some of that may come from swimming’s reputation as a whites-only, country club sport, and the long history of segregation at U.S. public pools.

When he was growing up, swimming wasn’t even on the radar for Holmes, an insurance account executive from Bowie who ran track as a kid. His friends ran track, so he did. Simple as that.

And that probably would’ve been the path for Cullen Jones, who won an Olympic gold medal in 2008 in the 4x100 freestyle relay and will compete in London in three events.

He played basketball, like his dad. But on a family trip to a water park when he was 8, he nearly drowned on a waterslide. His parents were scarred by the experience and immediately signed him up for swimming lessons. And he fell in love with swimming.

If he didn’t have that waterslide accident, America might not have its most celebrated African-American Olympic swimmer.

Holmes knew the power of example. And since none of the parents had raced as kids, he got Jones to come and speak to the Kingfish. He also took them to see the movie “Pride,” the story of an African-American swim coach in Philadelphia who rehabs a dilapidated city pool and assembles the first, all African-American swim team.

“The kids really learned from that. They had no idea of some of the barriers African-Americans faced when it comes to this sport,” said Lynn Davis, a team parent who wears exuberant, orange flip-flops.

When I talked to the kids about who their heroes are, they said Cullen Jones, sure. But also Ryan Lochte and Beth Botsford and Natalie Coughlin. Because they don’t see themselves as black swimmers, but simply as swimmers.

Not all their parents have embraced the sport. One 14-year-old confessed to me that his dad wants him to play football.

“I tried it, but I got bruised up, really hurt,” he said. “There’s a lack of injury in swimming. And I really admire the grace and skill of a perfect stroke.”

His mom is all in, running the concession stand and putting down the King Fishwiches to race to the pool’s edge to cheer him on. “My dad won’t come to my meets, though,” he whispered.

Whispering is not what the other parents do. They videotape, shout, stopwatch and dance.

And I’ve gotta say, as a veteran of many swim meets as a kid, they put on the best meet I’ve ever seen — the orange decorations, the food, the music between events. Wow.

This is how you build a powerhouse. This is how you produce so many high-level swimmers that people stop paying attention to the fact that they are black.

Follow me on Twitter at @petulad or e-mail me at dvorak@washpost.com.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things.
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