Swimming in The Inner City

By on March 24, 2007 @ 11:35 am

For 15-year-old Kristian Keith and her mother, it’s all about pride.

And like teenagers in the movie “Pride,” starring Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac, Kristian is in the vanguard of young black swimmers dispelling another racial stereotype.

The movie, which opens today, follows swim coach Jim Ellis and his predominantly African-American swim program in inner-city Philadelphia as they overcome racism, decrepit facilities and cultural barriers to become one of the top programs in the country.

In real life, Kristian Keith is a South Los Angeles teenager who trains at the Jesse Owens Park pool. With other African-American youths, she is working hard to close a glaring racial gap in the sport of swimming.

“She’s been pushing herself really hard, telling me how she wants to go to the 2008 Olympics,” said her mother, Tashia Kinney. “I’ve never seen her push herself so hard. And it seems like she wants it more now than ever before.”

Kinney is devoted to her daughter, teaching classes at a YMCA in Inglewood, running a small startup business, earning extra money while attending physical-therapy classes at Cerritos College.

“Everything I make goes to her first. If I wasn’t going to school and working all the time, I’d probably be doing more,” she said.

But to get to the Olympics, Kristian will face challenges that her contemporaries in wealthy, suburban communities might find hard to imagine.

Although her times in the 50-meter freestyle and 100-meter butterfly are good enough to qualify for the Junior Olympics, Kristian does not compete in high school. Neither the charter school she attends in Compton nor the nearby public school, Centennial of Compton, has a swim team.

So Kristian trains at Jesse Owens Park at Western Avenue and Century Boulevard, along with a small group of dedicated coaches. Top swimmers of Kristian’s age are often trained by former college and Olympic-level swimmers in elite club programs.

“It’s a challenge, but I don’t think of it as being different,” she said. “As long as I come here every day and go for it, I think I can make it.”

For his part, swim coach Jim Ellis hopes the movie – and the recent success of such African-American swimmers as Cullen Jones and Maritza Correia – will help bring more attention to the racial gap in the sport.

“We’d go to meets and people would say, `The gym is over there,”‘ Ellis recalled. “We were the only black team in the meet.

“People didn’t know what to make of us. But it helped change things, change attitudes.”

Few inner-city pools

Hampered by cultural and economic forces, as well as lingering slavery-era racist stereotypes that African-Americans can’t swim, government officials and USA Swimming, the sport’s governing body in the U.S., have begun trying to change the tide by investing in inner-city pools and swim programs.

“We just felt that everyone should have the same access,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke, who founded the Aquatic Foundation of Metro Los Angeles.

Burke’s group helps support pools in the inner city, including two that are open year-round, as well as a free competitive swim program at Victoria Park in Carson.

“It was an area that was being neglected and someone had to step up,” she said.

Patrick Escobar, vice president of grants and programs at the Amateur Athletic Foundation, contributed $3.9 million of a $29 million upgrade to the Coliseum Pool.

Escobar said the investment was as much for safety reasons as to help star athletes such as Kristian.

According to a 2005 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American children ages 5 to 19 drowned at 2.3 times the rate of white children of the same age – mostly because they don’t have the same access to swim lessons and water activities.

The causes run deep and include the fact that most slaves were not allowed to learn to swim because they might escape. This helped create the myth that African-Americans can’t swim or don’t swim as well as whites.

In 1987, former Dodgers executive Al Campanis infamously said in a “Nightline” interview that African-Americans don’t swim as well because they don’t have the “buoyancy” that whites have.

Ellis said all of these factors have created fear and a lack of interest in swimming among African-Americans.

“The other question people don’t want to answer is: Maybe black people don’t want to swim. Maybe they don’t want to swim because the role models haven’t been presented to them where they think it’s cool,” he said. “When do they hear about swimming? July and August, when it’s warm. But when July and August are gone, they’re back on the basketball court.”

Making pools available to all inner-city kids year-round is part of an effort to change this. Swimming lessons at the pools are free, as is a competitive swim team at Victoria Park. Swimmers are only responsible for entrance fees in swim meets and leagues.

Still, even that can add up.

Costly sport

Tashia Kinney estimates she spends about $200 a month to pay for Kristian’s swimming. That’s a fraction of what it would cost in an elite club program, in which monthly dues and training can run up to $1,000.

Brandon Montgomery lives near Kristian and her mother in South Los Angeles. Both trained under Louis Pecot, the swim coach at Jesse Owens Park.

A few years ago, when Brandon started to show promise, his father signed him up for a club program called Golden West Aquatics in Huntington Beach.

Brandon then enrolled at Marina High School in Huntington Beach so he could compete against the best swimmers in Orange County and, hopefully, earn a college scholarship.

“They have a lot more stuff out there and a lot better training. My first practice, I couldn’t believe all the equipment they had. I didn’t even know how to use most of it,” he said.

But not everyone in the inner city has the means or parental support to drive to Huntington Beach every morning.

Every afternoon, Robert Basurto, the swim coach at Victoria Park in Carson, drives by 9-year-old Jacklyn Sanchez’s house in South L.A. and picks her up for swim practice.

Jacklyn, a fixture at the Victoria Park Pool, recently qualified for three events in the Junior Olympics.

“Her parents both work,” Basurto said. “But she’s so dedicated. It’d be a shame to let all that talent go to waste.”

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