Paul Laurence Dunbar high schooler Keney Davis discovers a love of swimming with some help from her coach, Nikki Cobbs. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)
When Keney Davis played soccer or tennis, it elicited her aggression, but in the pool as a member of the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School swim team she found peace and motivation.
"If I have a bad day in school, I can't wait for swim practice, because in the water you're just floating," said Keney, 16, who will be a junior in the fall. "You're just doing you. You don't have to worry about other people."
She's found she can channel those positive feelings to other parts of her life and now understands the importance of picking the right sport. That's the goal of a three-year initiative that's been launched in Baltimore to transform the state of youth athletics by studying the quality and accessibility of programs, directing teams to available facilities and connecting kids with the most appropriate sports.
Known as Project Play, the partnership between Under Armour and the Washington-based Aspen Institute aims to use Baltimore as a laboratory to guide other cities in the development of programs that help urban youths stay fit and engaged.
The project kicked off publicly Thursday at the UA House at Fayette, an East Baltimore community center. The Aspen Institute released a draft report at the event based on an analysis of sports in the surrounding neighborhoods — a two-square-mile area that is home to 17 schools, 19 outdoor basketball courts, 14 parks, five pools, four recreation centers and one ice rink.
As part of the analysis, more than 1,800 students were surveyed to gauge their interests and experience, pinpoint what sports they want to try and the reasons they don't participate more often in athletics. The findings will set the groundwork for the project, giving community leaders a place to begin developing citywide plans.
Project coordinator Andre Fountain, who grew up in East Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood, said the goal is to build healthy communities through sport — engaging children and teens physically, emotionally and socially. The institute cites research that shows active kids have better life outcomes. They are less likely to be obese, smoke, use drugs or get pregnant; they score up to 40 percent higher on tests and are 15 percent more likely to go to college. They have lower health care costs and are more productive at work.
Project Play is part of a national effort with the same name that the Aspen Institute launched in 2013 to bring together experts in sports, medicine, media, business, government and philanthropy to discuss how to better engage young people. About two years ago, the initiative released a 48-page report aimed at helping organizations nationwide provide more quality recreational opportunities to youths and increase participation.
The iniative cites research that shows about 40 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 regularly play on teams. The number is lower for low-income areas.
Under Armour will contribute $600,000 over three years to make Baltimore the first "model community" under the national initiative. Once the local project is complete, the findings will be shared with urban leaders across the country.
Stacey Ullrich, senior director of global giving for Under Armour, said the Baltimore-based company wants to help local civic and sports groups mobilize, provide more opportunities for youths and identify breakthrough strategies.
"Baltimore has a rich history of developing its children and communities through participation in sports, from the early days of Babe Ruth to the proliferation of recreation centers that anchored communities throughout the city," Ullrich said in a statement. "Through this approach, together, we will be able to expand the quality and quantity of sports experiences for Baltimore youth so they may receive all of the associated physical, mental and social-emotional benefits."
The survey results are part of phase one, which also will include evaluating access to available school and nonprofit facilities and recreation centers. An updated assessment will be released in September, launching the second of three phases to be completed over the following two years.
From there, Fountain said, Project Play will try to develop methods for tracking success and ways for organizations to collaborate. They will document any improvements and share the results nationwide. He expects the research will delve into how to address a lack of coaches, create more shared-use agreements, address safety concerns about youths' travel to and from practice, and examine other challenges, such as equipment costs and fears about concussions and other injuries.
He stressed that the project will focus on access for all kids regardless of their skill level.
"The whole initiative is built on collective impact, a common agenda and shared systems," said Fountain, who lives in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. "The common agenda is for us to get everybody on board and supportive of growing the quality and quantity of sports."
The survey of the East Baltimore students revealed that swimming and gymnastics ranked first among the sports kids there would most like to try. Fountain attributes that popularity to the influence of Olympians Michael Phelps, the swimmer and Towson native who trained at a Mount Washington pool, and gymnasts Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas.
Phelps is relatable because of his connection to Baltimore, Fountain said. And he said the success of Biles and Douglas, both black women and highly decorated Olympians, resonated strongly with female students in the study area, which is predominately African-American.
Four of 10 students surveyed also said homework was the biggest barrier to playing sports. The draft report suggests alleviating students' concerns by adding an academic component to athletic programs, such as tutoring or homework help.
Besides the survey results, the draft report addresses the impact of city recreation center closures over recent years, calling it a "defining struggle" for sports programming.
In the 1980s, the city had more than 130 centers and now has about 40. Fewer than three in 10 of the youths in the East Baltimore focus area play sports in the four nearby centers. Setting up shared-use agreements would help give more kids and teams access to fields, gyms and pools.
The city has been working to renovate and reopen centers, including the Morrell Park Community Center, the first new one built in more than a decade. Mayor Catherine Pugh reopened the Crispus Attucks Recreation Center in West Baltimore's Madison Park on Thursday after a five-year closure.
Project Play also will address concerns about football, which represents the city school district's biggest sports investment, according to Aspen Institute's preliminary findings. The district spent more than $585,000 on football — nearly the same amount it spent on all five other fall sports — with money going to coach stipends, transportation to away games, school police overtime, helmets and shoulder pads, and the cost to keep paramedics and nurses on hand during games.
A deputy for City Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Young participated in Thursday's kickoff event to discuss how the City Council's $12 million Children and Youth Fund could play a role in strengthening sports programs. The fund was created by a city charter amendment approved by 82 percent of voters in November.
Tracey Estep, chief of recreation center operations for the city Recreation and Parks Department, said the initiative will provide a constructive examination of the gaps and duplication in athletic programs. She has been one of the local Project Play initiative's core advisory members.
She said Project Play has significant potential to give young people a constructive outlet that will help shape their character, boost their self esteem and give them structure that will help them in the classroom and eventually the workforce. Sports also connects youths to mentors, gives them the freedom to express themselves and provides motivation, creating a cascade of positive benefits.
"The only way we are going to change the trajectory of crime is to engage our young people where they are," Estep said. "We need this positive change in our city."
Coach Nikki Cobbs recruited Keney Davis to the Dunbar swim team after coaching her in soccer, where Keney had been ejected from three games for hostile behavior. She helped Keney learn to swim and mentors her year-round.
Like all the other members of the her swim team, Cobbs is helping Keney train for a job at the city pools this summer as an attendant with hopes of eventually becoming a lifeguard. Cobbs sees sports as an opportunity to reach young people and affect their whole life.
"If you can get the kids to buy into what you're giving, you can sail to the moon," she said. "Sometimes, it's not about winning and losing, it's about teaching them life skills like respect and integrity.
"Wins and losses will come but the relationships and the values and lessons that I try to teach my kids, they'll last forever."