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Olympian, swim groups look to turn the tide on the country’s racial gap in drowning

(NEW YORK) — For generations, Black Americans have grappled with a troubling reality when it comes to swimming.

Black Americans drown at a rate 50 percent higher than their white counterparts, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s a grim statistic rooted in systemic racism that’s led to a persistent lack of access to pools and swim classes for Black children, according to experts.

Anthony Patterson, the president of the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Nile Swim Club, said the lingering problem is a civil rights issue.

“I think that it’s a lack of access,” Anthony Patterson, the president of the Pennsylvania-based nonprofit Nile Swim Club, told ABC’s “Nightline.”

Nile Swim Club has been providing free swim lessons to kids for the past four years, part of its “No Child Will Drown In Our Town” campaign, and he said that it is imperative that more Black kids learn these life-saving skills.

“It’s up to us,” he said. “It appears that counting on other folks to teach our children how to swim is not happening in our community.”

Achieving this goal means that the country will have to confront and undo the systemic racism that led to it, according to Patterson.

Nearly 64% of Black children in the country have little or no swimming ability, compared to 40% of white children, according to USA Swimming, the national governing body for the American sport of swimming.

The swimming deficit in the Black community can be traced back to slavery. During which, enslaved Africans were forbidden from swimming. Over time, Black Americans were historically denied access to pools and beaches.

During the Jim Crow era, pools were segregated and there were far fewer affordable swim classes for Black families, according to historians.

The Nile Swim Club, located in Yeadon, was created in 1958 in response to that segregated environment after two Black families found out they were deliberately being denied access to a whites-only swim club, according to Patterson.

“Our founders decided instead of fighting and protesting and forcing them to have us join their club, they decided, ‘You know what? We’ll go back to our community [and] raise the money we need,’ and pretty much purchased these four and a half acres of land and put the Nile Swim Club here,” he said.

Patterson said this segregation is still going on in swim clubs across the country.

In 2012, the Justice Department found the historically white Valley Club in Pennsylvania discriminated against Black children during a camp pool trip in 2009. The club is now defunct.

Imani Kingcade sent her two sons, James and Cairo, to the Nile’s free swim program and told “Nightline” it made a huge difference.

“Cairo just had a big fear of water, period,” she told “Nightline.” “He didn’t want the water coming down on him.”

The boys graduated from the program this summer.

The Nile Swim Club isn’t the only organization helping Black kids improve their swim skills.

Jim Ellis, 74, created the Philadelphia Department of Recreation Swim Team in 1971, and became the first all-Black swim team in the country. He still coaches young swimmers and told “Nightline” that he’s heard too many misconceptions about Black swimmers over the years.

“African-Americans can’t swim. Their bones are too heavy. They’re not built right. Well, I’m African American, I’ve been swimming all my life. So this is a stereotype,” he told “Nightline.”

Ellis said many Black swimmers have proven their worth in the competitive field.

Cullen Jones is one of them.

Jones has won four Olympic medals, two gold and two silver, as well as several gold medals at other international swim competitions. He made history when he won the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle relay in the 2008 Olympics and became the first Black American swimmer to do so.

Jones told “Nightline” that there is still a way to go before Black American competitive swimmers are given more chances.

“Access is a very easy way for a lot of people to be like, oh, this is the reason why Black people don’t swim. That [swimming] is something that has been pushed out of our culture. There are [Black] swimmers in other countries. Black people swim. It’s a U.S. problem that we believe that this is something we don’t do,” he said,” he said.

Jones, a New Jersey native, said he learned how to swim after nearly drowning while visiting a water park with his family when he was young.

That incident prompted his mother to insist he learn to swim. Now retired from competitive swimming, Jones is determined to make swim lessons more accessible to all. He works as a water safety advocate with USA Swimming’s “Make a Splash” campaign.

“Anyone can drown. I can drown, Michael Phelps can drown. What we like to do is say that we are becoming safer around the water,” he said.

“We’re seeing progress,” Jones added, “And for any person that is interested, fearful, I won’t tell you my mom’s age, but she’s learning to swim. So it’s never too late to get out there and learn to swim.”

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