Howard’s program, founded in 1923, has churned out youth coaches and offered collegiate swimming opportunities for hundreds of minorities in an overwhelmingly white sport. But the loss of the school’s only remaining HBCU rival means the Bison stand alone, with perhaps an additional responsibility.
“From the surface level, people say I should be happy: now your rival is no longer. But would Carolina be happy if Duke shut their basketball program down?” asked Nic Askew, a former Howard swimmer in his second season as the program’s head coach. “It validates that we have to continue to fight for it, we have to continue to push for our program to be in existence, so we can be an example. At the end of the day, at Howard we want to be an example of why you should have a program — because we have success stories. We are a case study for how it can work.”
This is an odd moment for blacks in swimming. At the highest levels, things have never been better. Cullen Jones is a four-time Olympic medalist. Black swimmers swept the podium in the women’s 100-yard freestyle at last year’s NCAA championships. And 14 months ago, Jamaican Alia Atkinson became the first black woman to win a world title.
The number of black collegiate swimmers, though, remains minuscule. Last season, there were just 76 black male swimmers in Division I and 87 black women, according to self-reported NCAA demographic data, meaning blacks made up less than 2 percent of Division I swimmers. About 20 percent of the Division I black swimmers represented either North Carolina A&T or Howard. The loss of one of those programs, then, is a small earthquake for boosters of minority swimming.
“We had a couple of options in the past couple years, and now that’s gone,” said Marcus Green, the co-head coach of the Queen City Dolphins, a minority youth swim team based in Charlotte.
Green swam at Florida A&M, another HBCU school that ended its program within the past decade, and he said Askew’s Howard team now will be the focus for minority swimming clubs across the country.
“If there’s any [talented] kids I have or know, I’m trying to send kids his way,” Green said. “Nic now has the opportunity to get them from wherever he wants, which will hopefully make his program a lot stronger. We all want to support what we have. And there’s only one [program] left now, so we’re trying to give him whatever he needs.”
‘HOWARD HAS A SWIM TEAM?’
After swimming four years at Howard, including two years as the team’s captain, Askew had planned on a career in medicine. The death of his brother — another former Howard swimming captain, who succumbed to cancer at age 33 — helped shift Askew’s professional goals from medicine to coaching.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “I wanted fulfillment in what I was doing rather than a big bank account.”
Askew, who also played tennis for Howard, eventually became an assistant tennis coach for the school. When the Bison’s swim coach left for a full-time job in education, Askew was named head coach in 2014. He inherited men’s and women’s teams that had combined for zero dual-meet wins the previous season.
From the start, he focused on the program’s survival. While the total number of collegiate swimmers and swim programs has gone up in recent years, even prominent programs such as those at Clemson and the University of Maryland closed shop in the years before Askew’s hiring, citing factors like financial pressures and facilities challenges.
One of the first things the new coach did was call his former classmates and ask for help, “essentially saying we’re in need and we will always be in need.” He created a swimming sponsor program, asking alumni to help financially sponsor one Howard swimmer every season. And he created a community service committee on his team, which holds monthly events and plans to start offering swim clinics to the Howard community after this season.
That latter effort is of particular concern at an HBCU school. Despite gains, 70 percent of black children have low or no swimming ability, compared to 40 percent of their white peers, according to a national study conducted by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis. African American kids ages 5 to 14 have a fatal drowning rate of almost three times their white peers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The old myths about blacks in the pool have disappeared — “that their bones are too dense, that they have too much muscle mass to swim,” Askew recalled — but the sport still fights for relevance in some communities.
“I’ll say that I’m on the swim team, and [students will] be like, ‘Howard has a swim team?’ ” said Lewis, a sophomore at the school.
“Going to Howard, a lot of people just couldn’t swim,” said Bradford Worrell, whose WEAquatics youth program has five coaches, all of whom swam at Howard.
“Growing up as a kid, the stereotype was black people don’t swim,” said Matthew Calhoun, who finished his Howard career last season.
“Unfortunately, a lot of African Americans fed into that as well, and believed it, and said, ‘Well this just isn’t for me,'” said Robert Green, who runs the D.C. Wave, the Department of Parks & Recreation’s competitive swim team, which has two alumni swimming at Howard. “We’re starting to see more African American swimmers achieving at the higher levels, and that’s kind of changing the perception of parents as well as youth. They’re now saying it is possible for me to get into this sport and achieve.”
And yet kids — and their parents — often treat NCAA competition as a measure of a sport’s viability. It’s one thing to see Cullen Jones at the Olympics every four years; it’s another to see Howard swimmers volunteering at last week’s 30th annual Black History Invitational in the District, an event that attracts minority swimming clubs from around the country. Hundreds of black swimmers came through the Takoma Aquatic Center during the event, but those numbers haven’t translated to college teams.
“There is a big push to get African American diversity within the sport of age group [youth] swimming,” said Brandon Little, another former Florida A&M swimmer who now helps coach a youth club in Atlanta. “If you diversify age group swimming, it would be nice to see that same diversity in the college level. . . . I don’t think it’s hard to get kids in the pool. They would just have to see someone that is doing it, and doing it on a high level, to say I think I could be like that.”
‘YOU WON’T SEE ANOTHER PROGRAM LIKE US’
Some of Howard’s swimmers grew up in minority swim clubs, competing with other black swimmers. Sydney Cooper did not. The junior from Rhode Island, who chairs Howard’s community service committee, had one black swimming teammate before arriving at college: her sister.
“When I first got to high school, I would tell people I swam and they would think I was joking,” Cooper said. “When you’re the only black swimmer, you kind of start to think, ‘Maybe I’m crazy.’ ”
Cooper’s mom swam at Alabama A&M — another defunct HBCU program — and Cooper had been in the water since she was a grade-schooler. She didn’t want to go to an HBCU school, and was talking to coaches from predominately white programs. Her feelings changed during a recruiting trip to Howard.
“It’s just a completely different feeling when you’re around people who look like you and think like you and are doing something people don’t expect you to do,” Cooper said. “That’s more powerful than just kind of doing it.”
That, in fact, is part of Askew’s pitch to prospective swimmers. He talks to them about Howard’s academic tradition and about their swimming goals, but also about demographics.
“They’ll say ‘I’m the only black on my entire club team or high school team,’ and I say ‘I’ve got a team pretty much full of athletes that share that exact same story,’ ” said Askew, whose school records in the 100- and 200-meter breaststroke still stand. “You won’t see another program like us anywhere in the country.”
The pitch would get easier if the team succeeds. After two winless seasons, the Howard men won a dual meet against Marymount this season. The women fared better, winning four dual meets and finishing fourth of 11 teams at a midseason invitational, making for one of the best seasons in team history. Askew also brought in the program’s largest recruiting class last season.
“The program’s changing,” Cooper said. “People are starting to see us as a threat.”
The team is also trying to expand its local footprint by holding out-of-season events, “something that sets our program apart, to make sure we can stay around,” as Cooper put it. Askew — who says coaches at every collegiate swimming program must worry about fundraising and relevance — is collaborating with USA Swimming on a spring clinic for Howard faculty and staff. Cooper has dreams of expanding their clinics outside the university. And future swimmers are already talking about their responsibility as Howard swimmers; “we can be role models,” said Noah Nicholas, an 18-year old from Georgia who plans to swim at Howard next season. “If we’re the only ones swimming, then people look to us, and maybe we can encourage more minorities to swim.”
The thing is, though, they’d rather not be in that position.
“I’m used to it, but it’s sad at the same time,” Cooper said. “Once again, we’ll kind of be that only minority swimming.”