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

By Petula Dvorak

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, Maryland on July 14, 2012. It's Barber's last team meet. The 18-year-old swims for Towson University. (Photo by Doug Kapustin/For The Washington Post)

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

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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 4×100 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.

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7 Responses to “A Prince George’s pool builds an African American swimming powerhouse”

  1. superrichard says:

    Hold on! Hold on! Lets set the record straight. The powerhouse majority African American competitive swim team in Prince George’s County is unequivocally Theresa Banks Swim Club (TBSC). In fact the “Tigersharks” of TBSC are well known, highly recognized and well respected among the ranks of competitve youth swimming in the metro area. TBSC operates, and has been operating for many years, its summer training and competitive swimming program at the J. Franklyn Bourne Pool, Seat Pleasant and participating in summer swim as a member of Prince-Mont Swim League competing in the highly competitive A division (for 5 years straight) where they are the defending champions and on the brink of a second consecutive A division championship. TBSC finished the PMSL dual meet season 5-0, while KSC finished 3-2 (not 4-1 as stated in the article. They tried to cheat their way to a win). Additionally, TBSC swimmers participate in US Swimming competition at the club level with year round training at the Sports and Learning Complex. Training time, be it AM or PM, is nothing new to swim clubs with solid programs.

    As a former parent of the club named in the article, I have had the priviledge of observing the infancy of TBSC from their beginning at the Theresa Banks Pool, Glenarden to the present. Over the years since their inception, TBSC has quietly and without a lot of fanfare, progressed from the lower competitive divisions of Prince-Mont Summer League to the highly competitive A division where they currently remain and our defending A division champions. I’ve gotten to know quite a number of TBSC members over the years and I’ve found their club’s core values to be the cornerstone of their success as well as the success of their swimmers in and out of the water, in the classroom and at home. Some of those values include honesty, trust, integrity, truthfulness, respect, sportsmanship and a commitment to succeed.

    As a side bar, the name “Kingfish” is taken from the old Kettering Swim Club which functioned in the late 70′s, 80′s and 90′s before going under. Back then KSC was not to eager to embrace diversity as were a lot of swim clubs. You even had coaches who weren’t all that keen on diversity. Very interesting, there is one old coach that is trying to re-invent himself today with the club featured in the article.

    The true powerhouse of Prince George’s County? Without doubt, the “TIGERSHARKS” OF TBSC!!!

  2. HS swim fan says:

    Great article – and the end sums it up perfectly!

  3. a swim father says:

    Superrichard, I won’t dispute your facts about Theresa Banks. The team does sit atop the PMSL A division. The team is comprised of gifted (winter) swimmers. There is no question about that.

    However, your disparaging remarks about the swim clubs in the league and the highly respected Kingfish coach couldn’t be farther from the truth.

    The failure of large numbers of African-Americans to embrace the sport until relatively recently is the fault of whom? There were African-American swimmers in PMSL back in the 70s, 80s and 90s — TPDC has been winning with a largely African American team for decades. Were you even around then to know this? Clearly not.

    Since you bring up “embracing diversity,” I can name scores of teams in PMSL that are far more “diverse” than your own.

  4. #1Swim Team Parent says:

    You really should have done more swim research before writing and publishing this article. You also may have needed to wait until after yesterdays results of the Divisionals. One year in A Division and your a “powerhouse”? WOW! Why the haste for this article? Poorly written and an obvious display of a teams parental arrogance. It’s hard enough that the African American swim clubs have to face the challenges on deck in an “overwhelming white sport”. Your article undoubtedly adds divisiveness to the equation of our struggles. It would have been nice if you would have focused on the local areas African American swim clubs as a whole. Especially since fair recognition is far and inbetween for our teams. When its all said and done… It’s ALL about the kids…they put out the most! The parents are just there to help them achieve and support. Really our kids could care less about all the fan fair. They just want to prove their skills in the water. Kingfisher isn’t doing anything out of the norm that the others aren’t doing….oh but selling King Fishwiches.

  5. Swim Fan says:

    Check the facts and print the truth. Amanda deserves all the credit for the hard work and talent she has used. Her participation is an asset to the sport and the league. However lets get a few things straight. All new teams start in the lowest division until they can be properly placed. You need the talent to compete, but larger teams of average swimmers will typically beat out a small team even with top swimmers.

    Who gets to determine who is a black team, who is a white team and when was it decided that swimming was a white sport?

    While PMSL does allow club swim teams in the league, most of the teams are recreational summer pool teams with kids who are swimming for the enjoyment of participating with their friends. As noted in the article KSC recruits swimmers from miles away at shopping malls to be on their team.

    Powerhouse? I think not. Compare them to the other PMSL teams and they are a large team with good swimmers. They are not a powerhouse team.

    Since they are really not a true recreational summer team, then compare them to true competitive swim clubs like MSSC, Curl Burke, RMSC, Fast & Peak….. oh wait you can’t.

    THE RECORD
    Did she really break the record????

    Note that the league record mentioned in the article was done in a yard pool not a meter pool. There are far fewer yard pools in summer swimming and thus less chances to break League “Yard” records for most swimmers. Home teams with yard pools get 2-3 times if not more chances to break these records.

    Her time was swum at KSC pool. According to the 2012 PMSL handbook, KSC pool is not a certified distance for Prince-Mont League records.

  6. All Stars Swim Fan says:

    Congrats to Amanda Barber who swam a 58.50 100 meter free in the PMSL All Stars, beating the league and pool record of 58.98!

  7. ???? says:

    Swim Fan note that PMSL all-stars was held in the Yard version of CSR for decades so the fastes times up until about 2000 where done in yards!

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