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Diversity in Swimming | 6 Ways You Can Make a Difference

This resource guide was compiled in partnership with Diversity in Aquatics, a non-profit that works to educate, promote and support swimming, water safety and healthy aquatics activities for vulnerable populations. We encourage you to learn more about Diversity in Aquatics’ mission, donate, and get involved!

The next time you’re at the pool, look around you. How many Black people do you see? There likely are not many. Why?

The lack of diversity on the pool deck can be traced back to systemic racism and institutional decisions that kept Black people and people of lower socioeconomic status out of the water. As our society works to dismantle systemic racism and build a world that provides everyone equal opportunities, we must do the same for our swim teams and pool environments. 

We partnered with Diversity in Aquatics to help swimmers, parents, coaches and pool staff take action and create a more inclusive aquatic environment.

First, a History Lesson

Long before the rise of the transatlantic slave trade, West Africans were adept swimmers, divers, canoe makers and canoeists. Many communities were located near large bodies of water. Water was an integral part of the economy and played a major role in West Africans’ spiritual understanding of the world (Dawson, 2018).

The Rise of Public Pools

Now let’s jump ahead a few hundred years. After World War I, pools became leisure destinations in North America, complete with sand and chairs for sunbathing. From the 1920s to the 1950s, municipal pools served as centers of community life (Wiltse, 2007).

Related: Where are All the Black Swimmers?

Private charity organizations and city governments opened the nation’s first public pools to provide the working class with accessible and suitable places to bathe. The belief was that pools would provide 2 key benefits to society:

The Pool’s Role in the Civil Rights Movement

With the passing of desegregation laws in the United States, gender and social conflicts at pools were replaced with racial discrimination.

In the case of swimming pools, many municipal pools decided to close rather than desegregate, and the facilities that did stay open were often the scene of harassment or violence when African Americans attempted to access facilities in white neighborhoods (Wiltse, 2014).

These clashes fueled the construction of tens of thousands of new private pools and swim clubs in the 1950’s and 60’s; however, African Americans were typically denied access (Wiltse, 2014).

Related: British Marathon Swimmer Alice Dearing | The #AskASwimPro Show

One famous instance of racism at a pool occurred in 1964 at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida. Protestors jumped into the hotel’s segregated pool after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his guests were barred from entering the hotel restaurant. The hotel manager dumped acid into the pool to force protestors out.

While numerous protestors were arrested as a result of this incident, the protest garnered international attention and caused President Lyndon B. Johnson to demand that Congress pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Swimming as a Life Skill

As the years progressed, it became clear that a lack of pool access had a detrimental effect on the Black community. Many African Americans were unable to swim and were at a high risk for drowning.

Basic swimming ability is an essential life skill for people of all ages and races. According to the World Health Organization (2020), drowning is the 3rd leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for 7% of all injury-related deaths. 

Related: Jamaican National Swimmer Michael Gunning | The #AskASwimPro Show

The WHO also reports that racial or ethnic minorities, people with lower economic status and people with a lack of higher education are at greater risk for drowning. In fact, African American children ages 5-19 drowned in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than white children of the same ages. (Ito, 2014)

Related: Jeff Commings | The #AskASwimPro Show

In the U.S., drowning is currently considered a Consumer Products Commission Initiative rather than a public health issue along the lines of substance abuse or cancer. Ongoing research and community education are helping change this distinction and increase access to aquatics and water safety programs for people of all backgrounds. 

How You Can Improve Diversity in Your Community

Courtesy of Diversity in Aquatics

Whether you’re a swimmer, a parent, a coach or a member of pool staff, there are 6 key ways you can make an impact and work to improve diversity in your swimming community.

Download our action-item checklists for swimmers, parents and coaches or pool staff!

1. Strengthen Individual Knowledge and Skills

What it Means: Empower people to learn to swim!

Courtesy of Diversity in Aquatics

How You Can Help:

2. Promote Community Education

What it Means: Work to increase water safety education in your community

How You Can Help:

3. Educate Providers

What it Means: Providing swim instructors, lifeguards, teachers, gym managers, camp directors and other leaders with the resources they need to educate the community and teach people to swim.

Courtesy of Diversity in Aquatics

How You Can Help:

4. Foster Coalitions & Networks

What it Means: Bring together relevant groups and individuals to make a broader collective impact.

Courtesy of Diversity in Aquatics

How You Can Help:

5. Change Organizational Practices

What it Means: Adopting new policies and creating new norms that prioritize diversity.

Courtesy of Diversity in Aquatics

How You Can Help:

6. Influence Policy & Legislation

What it Means: Working to change laws and policies to influence positive outcomes related to diversity in swimming.

Courtesy of Diversity in Aquatics

How You Can Help:

Download an actionable checklist for swimmers, parents or coaches or pool staff and start making change in your community!

No matter your age or swimming ability, you can personally make an impact on your local and national swimming community. The ideas that we shared here are just the beginning — there is so much work to be done to improve access to aquatics and prevent drownings around the world. 

We are proud to present this guide in collaboration with Diversity in Aquatics and encourage you to put these resources to work. Join us for World Swim Day and invite your community to swim on October 24, 2020!

Did we miss something? Send an email to and share your resources or knowledge to help us make our sport more diverse. 

References & Additional Resources:

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