Howard University swim team moving tradition forward
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 10:47 PM
Hidden one floor beneath a college gymnasium, tucked at the end of a hallway and through two sets of heavy double doors, Matt Salerno checked his stopwatch and shouted time results to swimmers crisscrossing a small, six-lane pool whose very existence is unknown to even some students at Howard University.
As one of three historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to field a swimming and diving team, Howard faces a number of challenges - lack of recognition, for one, but also in recruiting, resources, competitiveness and its role in the continued expansion of a sport across racial boundaries. But despite those issues, many on the team believe they are on the right path toward forming a competitive program over the next few years - and one that can continue to break down barriers.
"I don't even know if they know how much of an inspiration they are to many black swimmers or African American swimmers or divers," Salerno said. "That they're doing something that's 1 in 50. And I think when they look back on it, they'll feel a lot of pride for their accomplishments."
Yohnnie Shambourger, who swam for Howard from 1971 to 1975 and coached from 1976 to 1987, said swimming was among the first athletic teams founded at Howard and that several prominent alumni were members of the program, including Andrew Young, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Shambourger, 57, said the team used to compete in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference against other HBCUs, but several dropped their programs around the time he took over as coach. The team won several HBCU titles against the schools that still fielded programs, Shambourger said, including eight in his 11 years.
Yet despite the program's history, a pall formed over the team in recent years as it struggled to reach a legitimate competitive level. Some club coaches within the talent-rich Washington area swimming community were unaware the program even existed.
"After I left, I saw the team slowly start going downward," Shambourger said. "The administration didn't actively go out and recruit coaches. Anybody that said they were interested in swimming, they let them coach. . . . At that point I was getting disenchanted with the program. I was feeling bad, I gave the program 11 years of my life and I wanted to come back as an old guy with kids and say, 'Hey, check out that team.' "
While the program has a longstanding history at the university, Salerno said swimming has received little attention from the athletic department in recent years. That is evident just by visiting the team's facilities.
The six-lane pool is far below the standards of even smaller Division I programs. The old digital clock on the wall clicks loudly and runs a few minutes fast. After practice, the team rolls the lane ropes on the pool deck by hand. Buckets sit on the stairs leading up to the stands to catch drips from a leak in the ceiling. One starting block that broke last year during a meet was not fixed until early this season.
The team also shares the facility with the rest of the school, and practices must end at 6:30 p.m. so that others can use the pool if they want.
"The facilities are below standard," said Salerno, who led the Fairfax High girls' team to the school's first-ever state team championship in 2008. "They are not below code, but they are not up to par. . . . [Recruits] have to know that up front."
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the swim team had $35,000 in operating expenses during the 2009-10 academic year. Comparatively, American University's swim team had $72,658 in operating expenses, and George Washington had $112,235. Conference rival Davidson had $56,857.