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With Dolphin U. Calvin Thomas II brings his love of swimming to Baltimore and beyond

Calvin Thomas II first learned to swim as a child in Los Angeles. Today he wants to share the benefits of the activity that transformed his life with other Black people who historically have been kept away from it.

Factors such as slavery, segregation and the fear of getting one’s hair wet have all contributed to a stigma that prompted the Morgan State University graduate to establish Dolphin University, a national business that provides swim lessons emphasizing water safety and social development.

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Although the swim classes are not an actual university, Thomas’ business mimics the academic model. There are midterm results. And participants graduate from one level to the next.

Calvin Thomas II is the founder of Dolphin University, which has locations in Baltimore and several other cities.
Calvin Thomas II is the founder of Dolphin University, which has locations in Baltimore and several other cities. (HANDOUT)

“Swimming isn’t dance or basketball. It’s truly a life skill,” Thomas, 30, explained.

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Thomas’ parents enrolled the then-6-year-old South Los Angeles native in swim lessons at a local YMCA where his mother worked. That led to Thomas swimming competitively for club teams and throughout high school on its team. He also played water polo and did a season of dive and synchronized swimming.

“I remember my grandmother driving me two to three hours to swimming clubs,” recalled Thomas, a resident of Belair-Edison. “I was the only Black kid on the swim team. It was really one of the reasons I started the swim school.”

Since launching his business in July 2020, Thomas has opened locations in Baltimore, near Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, Prince George’s County, Atlanta and Los Angeles. He opened a fifth location in Bowie in October. By June 2022, Thomas hopes to have 12 locations throughout the country.

So far, more than 1,200 kids have signed up for classes at the four locations. Black students make up 80% of the participants, according to Thomas. Swimmers range in age from 6 months to teenagers.

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Dolphin U. forms partnerships with gyms and hotels with pools where it then runs classes and offers lessons in the community.

Thomas said he wants to target inner-city areas, which he calls “untouchable markets” in that they have been ignored historically.

In the U.S., an average of 3,500 people drown per year. According to Stop Drowning Now, a nonprofit founded by a group of educators, 64% of African American, 45% of Hispanic/Latino and 40% of Caucasian children have few to no swimming skills. African American children ages 5 to 19 drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than Caucasian children in the same age range, according to the nonprofit.

Tiffany Adams has seen a noticeable difference in her 7-year-old son, Keaton, since he started the program.

“He loves it,” the Belair-Edison resident gushed. “Whenever Coach tells him something to work on at home, he’s all for it.”

Adams loves the gentle balance between work and play that her son gets from the classes. Adams cited safety as the main reason she wanted her son to take the classes.

“The students — even though they have their play time — he [Thomas] engages them,” she said. “Once they are in the process of learning a skill and are in the water, it’s a no-play zone. It’s safety. I appreciate that he can be playful, and stern with them. They can’t just play and lollygag and not listen when we’re not in the water.”

Adams said she looks forward to her son having a future as a knowledgeable swimmer.

“He wants to join the swim team. He wants to swim fast,” Adams said.

Thomas started the company with a $2,000 loan from his parents. Since then, the rest of the costs have been paid by enrollment fees, which are on a sliding scale.

“Everything has been done on a shoestring budget,” he explained. “We use enrollment money to open our next location. We’re able to open swim schools like McDonald’s.”

Thomas, who graduated from Morgan State University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2014, credits his experience at the historically black university with preparing him for his business endeavors.

“It [Morgan State] shaped my thinking,” he said. “And it allowed me to see the world in another vision. I had never come to the East Coast before. It made me realize that the world is bigger. I didn’t really leave my neighborhood that much. It was eye-opening. It taught me the theoretical part of life. Now I’m learning the practical part of life.”

This article is part of our Newsmaker series that profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at khigh@baltsun.com.

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