The stereotype that “Black people don’t swim” is dismissive of facts; especially since historically, racial discrimination prohibited African Americans in this country from enjoying public swimming pools—with the psychological effect from that trauma having passed on to future generations.
Learning to swim is an honor. There is a joy and pride in it. Plus, it’s fun, at whatever age. Having a command of pool and ocean water, provides one with a set of comfort and ease. It gives one the survival skill set to save oneself or someone else from being unexpectedly swallowed up by a body of water. Rapper and businessman, Jay-Z learned how to swim as an adult after his first child, Blue Ivy, was born. On The Shop: Uninterrupted, he spilled, “If she ever fell in the water and I couldn’t get her, I couldn’t even fathom that thought. I gotta learn how to swim.”
According to the CDC, swimming pool drownings among African Americans, 5-19 years old, are 5.5 times higher than those for whites in the same age range. Among those 11-12 years of age, Black kids in this country drown at 10 times the rate of their Caucasian counterparts. And in general, children aged 1-4, of any race, are most at risk.
The fact is 71% of the Earth is water—so swimming should be as natural to folks as walking. However, for many Black Americans it is not. And, saving your child from drowning means you, as an adult, must be able to save yourself.
Loria Yeadon, President and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Seattle, has created an initiative to teach parents and children how to swim. The YMCA’s study revealed that 44% of Black parents report beginner’s swimming abilities or none at all. Yeadon is determined to change that stat—starting with herself.
In 2019, the career executive of Fortune 500 companies, took her most recent position at the YMCA. She entered the role with high integrity, with a goal of shedding her own trauma, and learning how to swim.
Growing up in the small factory town of Kenbridge, Virginia, she recalled that the municipality’s only pool was a private one at a local country club (translation—membership not necessarily welcoming to a Black family).
Water, for her, wasn’t associated with freedom or fun. “The thought of swimming was always accompanied by fear and a bit of trepidation. There was no meaningful relationship with water,” says Yeadon. “Even when we went to the pond on fishing trips, we were told to stand back from the water, because if we were to fall in, no one could save us.”
Stepping into her new leadership role at the Y, she recognized that to work at the enterprise and not know how to swim was a non-starter. “I wanted to be the disruption of these generational issues that we’ve seen for far too long,” she shares. “If we want to get rid of the stigma—the generational issues that I certainly saw my entire life—somebody needs to be the change. And my hope is to be an example, for other parents who don’t know how to swim.”
Yeadon and the YMCA’s leadership team are encouraging families to learn to swim together by offering free swim lessons. “What they do together, they’re likely to sustain together.”
“In Washington state, there are over 8000 Lakes, and over 200 miles of waterfront property in my county alone.” Yeadon points out, “There’s this false sense of security about being in the open water. And during the pandemic, when pools were closed, families went to beaches. And we saw a huge spike in deaths from drowning in the open water. And so, we all need to learn. Drowning is preventable.”
In partnership with Gabrielle’s Wings, an organization whose mission is to provide children in communities of color cultural and educational opportunities, the Y is able to offer the larger Seattle community the aquatic life-saving skill. “[Gabrielle’s Wings] founder, Michelle Hord, is one of the most amazing women that I know. She took something very tragic—the death of her daughter, Gabrielle—and turned it into a mission to help kids to experience, to dream and be whatever they want it to be. As part of her mission, she’s partnered with us to bring those free swim lessons to the organization’s kids and their families.”
Acknowledging that they need more partnerships and funding to reach their goals, Yeadon explains, “We need more partnerships aligned with getting this done. One of our goals at Greater Seattle is that every kid, by the time they go through third grade, knows how to swim.”
Yeadon freely admits, “We’re learning. A big part of this is listening. In Seattle, we’ve recognized that there are unique barriers to certain communities. Like Muslim women, because of some of their restrictions, they’re not allowed to be in their swim gear in public. So we needed a pool where we could draw the curtains when they were swimming. When we offer women’s swim only sessions, we draw those curtains so that [they] are comfortable.” Installing the curtains, an undertaking of tens of thousands of dollars is worth it to Yeadon if it helps to reach the organization’s purpose and goal.
We all need examples. In Yeadon’s swim journey, she is an inspiration. Check out her video below. Seeing her find her rhythm, flowing smoothly into a backstroke, is a gratifying moment. Watching her become at one with the element of water is an act of self love and her achievement of breaking a generational cycle of trepidation is most heroic indeed.