This post is guest-written by MySwimPro Ambassador Siphiwe Baleka.
On October 4th and 5th of 2019, I hope to compete in the most important swimming race of my life. This race is more important to me than the 1989 Illinois High School State Swimming Championships in which, as the #1 seed in the 200 I.M., I ended up finishing fourth.
It is more important than the YMCA National Championships and the Junior National Championships in which I made the finals in every event that I swam but failed to win any event. More important than the 1991 and 1992 Eastern Intercollegiate Swimming League Championships where I swam on winning, record-setting relays and made the All-Ivy League Team in the 100 Freestyle.
More important than the legendary inaugural Harvard-Yale-Princeton (HYP) tri meet that we (Yale) won to clinch the Ivy League title. More important than the 1991 US Open in which I failed to qualify for the 1992 US Olympic Trials by 0.8 seconds.
And more important than the USMS National Championships in which I have won thirteen individual titles or the 2017 FINA Masters Swimming World Championships in which I won four silver medals.
What swimming competition can be more important than any of those?
Let me explain. This is not your typical swimming article because my story is not a typical swimming story.
Two things have dominated my life: swimming and race(ism). I was born and raised in the all-white subdivision of Boulder Hill, in Oswego, Illinois. My family was one of two black families in the community. In 1976 when I was just five years old, a book was published called Roots: The Saga of an American Family. That same year, a blonde hair, blue-eyed boy and his friends called me a racial slur and hit me with a broken metal bar from the bicycle rack (we later became teammates on the football team in high school). The book was made into a TV movie in 1977 and viewed by 130 million people in America, including myself.
After Roots came on television, I did not want to go to school. This was the first time I became aware that there was a difference between black people and white people. And the white people were more powerful. This is called white supremacy. As a result, black people were made to feel less important, less intelligent, and inferior. Somewhere inside me, I felt ashamed, but I also felt that I would prove that I am not inferior.
In 1978, a lifeguard at the Boulder Hill Civic Center named David Stevens saw me playing with the other kids and asked me to swim across the pool. I did, and then he asked me to do it again but this time on my back. I did that and he told me to come to the pool the next morning at 7:00 am. And just like that, I joined the Oswego Park District Lil’ Devils Swim Team. I hated the cold water, but I now earned the coveted red and white striped speedo swimsuit that all the swim team members wore. I was “on the team.”
The following year, I was winning all the summer league races and setting team records. Whatever inferiority complex that racism was fostering, swimming was doing the opposite. Swimming races gave me confidence, a sense of achievement and pride. It also made me feel accepted. Everyone on the team was happy when our relay won or our team won and I was included in that happiness. Coach Dave, who later qualified for both the US Olympic Swimming and Triathlon Trials, instilled in me the desire to work hard in the pool and become the best I could be.
In 1980 I joined the Aurora YMCA Sharks swimming team in order to swim all year. By 1981 I was the Illinois YMCA State Champion in the 100-yard freestyle with a time of 1:00.68. Around that same time, at school we were reading the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Naturally, I identified with the heroes of the story, and so when the teacher asked who wanted to read the parts of Tom or Huck, I rose my hand. One of the students in the class said, “You can’t be Huck. You have to be N***** Jim”. Can you imagine being the only black kid in class and reading a book which uses this racial slur more than 200 times? These were the kind of onslaughts to my psyche that I suffered everyday as a kid. But everyday I also went to swim practice. For me, the pool was an equalizer. If you were fast and you were helping the team win, you were respected and liked. My teammates were my friends. Ironically, in a sport that, at that time, was mostly all-white (and mostly still true today) I never felt out of place or inferior.
After winning several events at the age of 14 at the Ohio Valley Championships in 1985, I gave my first interview to a newspaper. The article stated, “An articulate youngster who smiles easily, Blake has no problem explaining his decision to forgo the more traditional sports that black youngsters participate in. ‘I play all the sports, but I like swimming the most. It’s just fun, especially when you win. It’s a good way to stay in shape. Besides, all my friends swim… Swimming is probably what I am best at. I get more satisfaction out of it, I want to get a scholarship, that’s the first thing.’”
Two years later, just days before my 16th birthday, on April 6, 1987, Al Campanis told Nightline anchorman Ted Koppel that blacks can’t swim because we lacked buoyancy.
That year I was ranked in the top 16 in the nation in the 100 freestyle. The success in the pool sustained my esteem, earned me status among my peers, and created opportunities for me. In 1988, the swimmers at the Illinois Swimming State Championships voted me to be one of their two athlete representatives to United States Swimming. My senior year in high school, I was recruited by scores of NCAA Division 1 schools. I applied to just six schools – Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, The University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Virginia. I was accepted at all six. Was it because I was super smart? Probably not. I graduated only 9th in my class of just over 300 students. My SAT verbal score was in the 85th percentile, my math score was 91%. I did a little better on the ACT test, scoring in the 97%. That’s not enough to get you into those schools. Why did they accept me? It was because of the swimming. But it was also because of my race. Division 1 caliber black swimmers were a rarity – just a handful of us at the time like Tim Jackson and Byron Davis. Accepting me, these schools got a two-for-one: a great swimmer and a diversity-quota-filling black student. Here, the intersection of my swimming and my race, helped me.
The January 26th, 2015 issue of Sports Illustrated told the rest of my collegiate swimming story. That article also told another part of my story, how I had an identity crisis and left Yale and traveled around the world. Describing that experience, I told Jon Wertheim, author of the article, “I didn’t feel like I knew who I was. I didn’t know my history. Like a lot of African-Americans, we don’t know our past. All of a sudden, connecting with my ancestral heritage became very important.”
So, I traveled to Ghana, Benin, and Togo. I lived in Ethiopia for a year. According to Wertheim, Yale swimming coach Frank Keefe “recalls meeting Blake for lunch that semester and doing a double take when his former star walked into the diner. ‘He was a Rastafarian,’ Keefe said. He said that he wanted to be the national swim coach of Ethiopia”. It was true. When I went to Ethiopia in 2003, I discovered that the Gihon hotel in Addis Ababa had an Olympic-sized swimming pool with no water in it. At altitude! Immediately I thought of the boys I saw at Lake Tana, the source of the Nile. They grew up around water. They were natural swimmers. What if I took them and trained them to become the world’s best long-distance swimmers? I did not think this was a crazy idea. They had already proved they were the best long-distance runners. All I had to do was get a group of boys from eight to ten years old and coach them for the next twenty years. They had the advantage of living and training at altitude. I planned to fund it by offering high altitude training camps in this “exotic” location for American college swimming teams which are allowed one foreign trip every four years. I met with the Ethiopian Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture and discussed my idea. In my mind, if Michael Phelps really wanted to go to the next level and transform the sport of swimming – taking the poorest country in the world, and making black, Ethiopians the best swimmers in the world – he would help me finance this.
In 2007, I returned to South Africa. While there, a council of elders explained to me that whenever a “son of the soil” returns home after a long journey, he receives a new name. Having journeyed far and long, the person returns as a “new” man, thus requiring a “new” name. The elders told me that while I was on ancestral soil, my ancestors required that I have an ancestral name that they could call. Thus, the elders gave me the name “Siphiwe” which means “gift of the creator” and the surname Baleka which means “fast” and “he who escaped”. This was profoundly important to me. In the movie Roots, the main character Kunte Kinte, when brought to America, was stripped and tied to a post where he was whipped until he gave up his name and acknowledged that his new name was “Toby”, the name given to him by the slave master.
At Yale, where I started to study African American history, I learned that most slaves took the names of their slave masters. All of a sudden, my birth name, Anthony “Tony” Blake, started to really bother me. Why did I, a black person, have a Spanish or Italian first name and an English surname when I am neither Spanish, Italian or English? Why, now that I am “free”, did I continue to use the foreign names of slave-owners? This was part of my identity crisis that started back in 1977 when I watched the movie Roots. Thus, when I returned to the United States, I had my name legally changed to Siphiwe Baleka in order to honor my ancestors.
On September 28, 2010, I received my genetic DNA results from African Ancestry. My paternal DNA was a 100% match with the Balanta people in Guinea Bissau. Since then, I have researched my Balanta ancestry and discovered that they originated in East Africa. Haplogroup E1b1a is a direct basal branch of Y-chromosome haplogroup E-V38 which originated in the Horn of Africa about 42,300 years before the present. Further research showed that these ancestors of mine migrated down the Nile River and settled a place called Wadi Kubbaniya in modern day Sudan around 18,500 BC. Research also showed that they continued to migrate down the Nile River and established the first city called Nekhen. By 3200 BC, they had migrated into what is called Upper and Lower Egypt and settled the first areas called Nuits or Nomes. The 13th Nuit/Nome that my ancestors settled was called Iunu. In the Bible, it is called “On”. The Greeks called it “Heliopolis” and today, the city is called Cairo.
On October 4-5, 2019, the Heliopolis Sporting Club in Cairo, Egypt will be hosting the 1st International Swimming Masters Championships. Now you can understand why competing in this event is so important to me. For the first time, the world’s best Masters Swimmers are going to compete in Africa, in the very city that my ancestors founded. It is important to me that one of the descendants of the city’s original founders – me – not only competes but wins. To be honest, I get upset whenever I see that the “African Swimmer of the Year” is in fact, of European origin. This year, Ed Acura gained attention with his short movie, A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim. I want to make my contribution, my statement, that not only can blacks swim, we can win! I think it is important that one of the champions at this inaugural competition, is a black swimmer. I think it can inspire a new generation of young swimmers as well as adult swimmers on the continent of Africa.
As a boy, I wanted to be a professional athlete. However, there was no opportunity for professional swimming back then. That is changing. Swimmers like Michael Andrew are making a living traveling around the world and competing. This was my dream. It still is. Just because I am a 48-year old Masters swimmer doesn’t mean I have to give up on this dream. I, too, can travel around the world and compete and try to prove I am the fastest in the world. However, right now, there is no money in Masters Swimming. There’s very little sponsorship and definitely no prize money. But we have to start somewhere. I’m going to need help.
I have already made arrangements to travel to Guinea Bissau this December. It will be the first time in 269 years that anyone from my family has returned to reconnect with our Balanta relatives. This is a true, Alex Haley Roots’ type reunion for me. Honoring the ancestors is one of the most important aspects of Balanta culture. The only thing that could make this year even better is if I could also return to my family’s most ancient and original ancestral homeland and honor them by doing what I do best – compete in and win a swimming race.
To do this, I need to raise a little money. Please go to my GoFundMe page and make a contribution. The meet organizers have promised that if I bring five swimmers with me, they will pay my in-country expenses, so if you would like to join me, please contact me and let me know.
I want to thank MySwimPro for supporting me, sponsoring me, and helping me to truly be a MySwim “Pro”.