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Swimmers compete for cancer research at elite Baltimore site

More than a dozen students of Marvin A. Thorpe II swam at Meadowbrook to raise money for cancer research at Jo

Amber Swift-Rose grinned as she lovingly touched the gold Olympic medal hanging from her neck at Baltimore's Meadowbrook Aquatic Center, where she had come to race in the swimming world's equivalent of Camden Yards.

"It looks good on you," said Theresa Andrews, who won the medal for the 100-meter backstroke along with another gold at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Amber,10, was one of more than a dozen students of Marvin A. Thorpe II who competed Saturday at Meadowbrook, a world-class facility where Michael Phelps, Andrews and many other Olympic swimmers have trained over the past three decades. She and her teammates had faced a dozen other teams in Baltimore's annual Swim Across America pool event to raise money for cancer research at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Thorpe, 48, represents the second generation of a family enterprise that has taught generations of Baltimoreans — mostly African-Americans like Thorpe — how to swim. He conservatively estimates that between himself and his late father, Marvin A. Thorpe Sr., the family has taught about 20,000 children and adults how to swim since 1970.

Amber, a Baltimore resident who began lessons with the younger Thorpe when she was 4 or 5, said it isn't always easy being his student.

"He's tough, but he still teaches you a lot of things," she said. Having recently won a competition in North Carolina, Amber dreams of winning gold of her own — much like Simone Manuel, who became the first African-American woman to capture an individual swimming medal at this year's Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

The Thorpe enterprise started with a near drowning.

The younger Thorpe was 3 when he fell into his family's backyard pool in Woodlawn. He was rescued by his father, a physical education teacher in Baltimore schools.

In pulling his son from the pool, Marvin Thorpe Sr. found his calling in life. Not only did he teach his son to swim, he began to give lessons to other children in the neighborhood. As his reputation spread, parents from around the city asked him to teach their kids — and sometimes themselves — to swim.

With his summer swimming lessons in the backyard pool, Thorpe began challenging the stereotype that African-Americans were either uninterested in swimming or afraid of the water.

It's an image grounded in reality. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, about 70 percent of African-Americans can't swim.

The consequences can be fatal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says African-American children between the ages of 5 and 14 drown at three times the rate of white youngsters.

The low rate of swimming among black Americans has its roots in segregation, which excluded them from many public pools, and poverty, which made swimming lessons unaffordable. When parents didn't learn to swim, they couldn't teach their children anything but to fear the water.

The elder Thorpe, who learned to swim as a boy in the segregated city of Lynchburg, Va., set out to break that pattern in Baltimore. Shortly before he died in 2004 at 72, he was quoted as saying, "I dream of a day where there are no reports of a child drowning."

Sophia Stone Clark of Randallstown was one of the elder Thorpe's students. Under his tutelage, Clark overcame her fear of the water at 22 and learned to swim.

"He was very strict. He meant what he said," she recalled. "We had to do it, but he was very loving. He has a warm heart."

Now 40, Clark was at Meadowbrook to cheer on her 8-year-old daughter, LoLo, a member of the younger Thorpe's 4M Swim Club. Clark said LoLo is receiving the same no-nonsense instruction from the son that she received from the father.

"They have the same teachings," she said.

The younger Thorpe said it was tough growing up under his father's strict regimen, which had the son giving lessons to others each summer day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. But he said he never found a career as satisfying as teaching people to swim, and when his father died he took over the family business — giving paid lessons during the summer and coaching the 4M team the rest of the year.

After a chance meeting this spring with Annie Noel Applegarth, who chairs the Baltimore version of the national Swim Across America event, Thorpe accepted her invitation to bring his team to the competition Saturday at Meadowbrook. Applegarth said Thorpe's team sponsors gave $2,500 to the cause.

Thorpe said his kids were thrilled to compete at Meadowbrook, which many knew as the training ground of Phelps, and to meet Olympians such as Andrews, a longtime supporter of Swim Across America. The coach said he was happy to bring his kids out to raise money through the event, which will help Hopkins' Kimmel Cancer Center develop more effective treatments. He said his mother died of cancer in 2011.

"Everybody knows somebody who has dealt with this," he said. "This disease has impacted everybody."

The Swim Across America fundraiser will continue Sunday with an open-water swim on the Magothy River in Pasadena.

mdresser@baltsun.com

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