Hampton Roads, Va (WAVY) - Memorial Day weekend means the beginning of beach and pool season for a lot of us. The sad reality though it's also a time of year 10 On Your Side has to report on heart-wrenching drownings in Hampton Roads.
The barriers keeping African Americans from learning to swim is a difficult subject to talk about. There are stereotypes that black people cannot swim. That is not what this story is about. Almost everyone is capable of learning to swim. This story is about the barriers that keep African Americans from learning to swim, and how too often those barriers put us, your neighbors, friends and loved ones in danger.
"I enjoy it," Bettye Potts said. "It's relaxing. I use it for mind therapy and I've also used it for physical therapy."
Fifty two-year-old Potts didn't always feel this way about swimming. In fact she's only been comfortable in the pool for two years. Most of her life Potts has avoided the water altogether.
"Parents taught their kids growing up to stay away from the water, and stay away from the river," Potts said. "It was almost like saying don't touch that it's hot; you're going to get burnt."
This scenario has played out all across the country for years. A study by USA Swimming found that fear is one of the strongest barriers keeping black kids from learning and it was passed from generation to generation.
USA Swimming found if a parent doesn't swim there is only a 13 percent chance their child will learn.
Even more concerning is their study found that nearly 70 percent of African American children have low swimming ability or cannot swim at all. The statistic is 60 percent for Hispanic children and 40 percent for white children.
The State Medical Examiner's Office reports 20 people drowned in Hampton Roads last year. 10 of those drownings were African Americans. Seeing the reports of these drownings compounds the fear for a lot of children.
"Every summer I would hear about a drowning, and that would definitely keep me from the water," Potts said.
Potts made sure her daughters Faith and Hope Barnes learned to avoid being crippled by the fear she had as a child.
"My dad just kind of threw us in," Faith Barnes said. "We've always been taught not to be afraid of the water, and just go for it."
But when Faith and Hope are in the pool, they often do not get their hair wet. As trivial as that might sound, hair is big factor. Researchers found that concern over physical appearance is one of the toughest barriers to crack in African American women. Faith is a hair stylist and hears about it all the time.
"When it gets wet it curls up and sometimes you have to blow dry it, and a lot of us are going natural because of that," Faith Barnes said. "If you're not natural or if you choose to wear a hair weave or a relaxer sometimes the chemicals don't mix with the chemicals that are in the pool."
"It's definitely a barrier," Faith Barnes said."It's no secret that African American hair is different, and it's coarse," Hope Barnes said. "It takes a lot to maintain it and to have it look the way society says is right."
There is also the issue of access. Jodi Jensen is the Aquatics Director at Hampton University. She says not being able to go to a pool in your neighborhood or being able to afford the lessons keeps many minorities from learning to swim. Jensen says lack of access to a pool contributes to the high number of drownings in open water. Without a safe place to swim, kids will go wherever they can swim, like the beach, often putting themselves in danger.
"The drowning rate for African Americans is three times higher in open water areas versus in swimming pools at places like Ocean View, Virginia Beach, Huntington Park Beach," Jensen said.
HU had its own drowning tragedy earlier this year when 17-year-old David Esan drowned at a pool party . This fall Jensen plans to study what barriers keep African American college students from learning to swim.
"I think it's rooted in the cultural issues, and it not being socially accepted, and breaking away from that," Jensen said.
That is why Jensen says HU places such a high priority on its students learning and makes role models out of their black lifeguards to break down the misconception that swimming is not a black sport.
"Swimming is an acceptable form of exercise and recreation and participation," Jensen said. "Drowning is color blind, and we want everyone to reap the rewards of swimming."
The tide is turning on some of these obstacles. Jensen says every year she sees more African American students joining swim teams. Cities like Norfolk are doing their part to make swimming accessible to everyone with free or low cost swim programs during the summer and school year.
"We're transporting second grade students from their schools for a five day swimming lesson at one of our city pools," Jennifer Cauldwell said. Cauldwell is the Division Head Director of Public Information for the Norfolk Department of Recreation, Parks and Open space.
"It's completely free, and
the transportation is provided by Norfolk Public Schools," Cauldwell said.
Some of the programs include transportation. There is so much demand for these classes during the summer they have to do a lottery system to give everyone a shot at participating.
Potts' kids enjoy their time in the water; she learned to swim at 50. Her kids have never not known how to swim, proof that old fears can fade and statistics can change.
Here are some more resources for those wanting to learn about swimming and water safety:
- Contact your local YMCA or Recreation Center and ask for low cost swimming programs
- The Norfolk Summer Plunge Program is a free swimming and water safety program between July 8 and August 19 for ages 6 to 18. If interested, contact the Huntersville Swimming Pool at 757-664-7431.
- The Really Awesome People Swimming Program (R.A.P.S.) in Virginia Beach offers swimming lessons. If interested, call Leslie Paul at 757-420-9523 or visit www.RAPSSWIM.org .
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