Coach welcomes blacks to Havre de Grace swim team


A modest exhibit of photos and words at Havre de Grace High School counters a long-held myth about blacks: that they can't swim.

"I'm trying to let the kids know they're welcome," said swim coach Aaron Thompson, who set up a display at the school to celebrate Black History Month and to encourage black students to try the sport.

There are only three black students among the county's 313 competitive swimmers at the high school level, and two of them, Cher Miller and Justin James, are on the Havre de Grace Warriors swim team.

"There's no reason they can't be just as good as anyone else," said the affable Mr. Thompson, who also teaches algebra and calculus at the school.

He hopes that the exhibit, which was spurred by an article he read in Swimming World magazine, will dispel misconceptions that blacks are physiologically unable to swim.

A memorable example of those misconceptions came in 1987 on ABC-TV's "Nightline" when Al Campanis, then a Los Angeles Dodgers vice president, said that black people weren't good swimmers because they weren't buoyant.

Mr. Thompson begs to differ. "There's no physical reason blacks can't swim," he said. In fact, the reason there aren't more good black swimmers is that they have not been made to feel welcome at pools, he said.

George D. Lisby, a black school board member and longtime Harford County resident, remembers when he and his friends couldn't swim in the pools because they were segregated.

"We were not allowed to be part of swim teams and clubs," said the 59-year-old Aberdeen resident.

He did learn to swim, though, when he was 8. "We weren't supposed to, but we went to a little pond off Swan Creek [near Route 156]," Mr. Lisby said conspiratorially. "It was the kind of thing that parents did a lot of worrying about the safety factors."

Havre de Grace High's two black swimmers didn't fare much better until they joined the team. "I could doggie paddle," 17-year-old Cher said with a laugh. And 16-year-old Justin said he didn't learn to swim until he was 14 through a middle school program.

Mr. Thompson didn't swim competitively until he was a high school sophomore, so he understands the pressures. He's also quite happy to add novices to the team.

"We'll teach them everything they need to know," he said.

"There should be more black swimmers," said Cher, who started on the team when she was a freshman and is trying to persuade her seventh-grade brother to swim.

"He plays basketball, but there's nothing like the swim team."

Educators do have concerns about what they call the "Michael Jordan phenomenon," a reference to unrealistic expectations students may have about basketball careers.

Judy Lehr, an assistant professor of education at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., who recently spoke to county teachers at Aberdeen High School, reeled off some sobering figures:

Of the 400,000 boys nationally who play high school basketball, 4,000 will go on to play in college, and 35 will make it to the National Basketball Association.

But even Justin feels the lure of the sport. "My heart's in basketball, but Mr. Thompson asked me to swim, so I am," he said.

Mr. Thompson also tells the students about the academic

benefits of swimming.

"The college swimming scholarships for black athletes are largely untapped," he said.

The Massachusetts native, who came to Havre de Grace High two years ago, has had his work cut out for him trying to field a good team.

"When I started, there were only 20 kids," he said. And last year, their record was a dismal 3-12-1.

As of Friday, the team's record was 9-5, with 32 swimmers.

"We're a small school, about 500, so before, we were usually mangled," said Mr. Thompson, who now works with a co-head coach, Wendy Hayes.

"I'm proud of the way I can see the kids feel about themselves," Mr. Thompson said.

The energetic 25-year-old coach attributes the team's current successes to diligence and practices.

Four days a week, the swimmers board a bus for Edgewood Middle School, where they go through their laps, because their school doesn't have a pool. Interscholastic meets are held on Thursdays.

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