Just days before he is set to receive a prestigious national award, Marvin Thorpe II is still trying to wrap his mind around the notion.
After all, the 52-year-old Windsor Mill native has always done what he loves to do, and that’s following his late father’s legacy in teaching people of all ages, mostly African Americans like himself, how to swim.
He conservatively estimates that since 1972 — when, as a 4-year-old, he was the first beginner taught by his father, Marvin A. Thorpe Sr. — the family has provided swim lessons to more than 15,000 children and adults in their backyard pool.
On Friday, USA Swimming’s National Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee will honor Thorpe virtually with the 2020 USA Swimming DEI Award.
Established in 2006, the annual award is presented to a person, group, or organization that raises awareness and participation in the sport of swimming to underrepresented groups of people.
Thorpe was selected among nominations from every state.
“I probably have not been able to digest the gravity of what it means. I’ve been doing this my whole life and sometimes I probably fail to think about what impact it has on the person next to me that I’m teaching, whether it be a kid or an adult,” he said. “It certainly is a wonderful thing and all I can say is I’m very grateful and I think it’s going to take a little bit of time for me to really understand this is not just Baltimore or Maryland, this is the entire country. It’s like ‘Wow!’”
Thorpe, who took over the family’s 4M Swim Club when his father died in 2004, was nominated by Sandy Avery, the DEI chairperson for Maryland Swimming.
In her submission letter to USA Swimming, she wrote: “Coach Marvin is an inspiration for all of us who are fighting what the World Health Organization labeled an ‘epidemic of drowning among the most vulnerable children — children of color, socioeconomically disadvantaged children, and differently-abled children — and he has been doing it for over 40 years. … Coach Marvin has worked tirelessly for decades to make children safer in the water and more confident in an environment that has too often excluded them in the past.”
Upon hearing the news, Thorpe naturally thought about his father, who developed a fascination for the water and learned to swim when he was a youngster in segregated Lynchburg, Virginia.
“Over the tenure I’ve been doing this, I often times will say to myself, ‘Dad are you watching this?’ because sometimes I have no words to describe some of the things that happen and how I think he would be really proud,” Thorpe said.
“My Dad came from Lynchburg, Virginia, and he told me they had one pool that all people of color were supposed to swim in. So for him to be able to come to Baltimore and do it in his own backyard and 50 years later to get a national award, all I can say is, ‘Dad, do you see this?’ I don’t even know what to say.”
Thorpe reflected to 1972 when he was sitting at the family’s then-aboveground pool watching his father clean it. He asked permission to put his hands in the water, and then his feet. When he slipped and fell in, his dad quickly rescued him.
The next day, his dad taught him how to swim. Later that summer, the neighborhood kids were taught how to swim. Then parents wanted to learn. The senior Thorpe’s lessons became word-of-mouth legendary, with family members of prominent politicians and athletes taking part, along with the many others from all over Baltimore.
This summer marked the 48th year of lessons in the Thorpe family’s backyard pool with the typical number of 450 down to just over 200 because of safety measures taken amid the coronavirus pandemic. A month before the elder Thorpe died in 2004, he said, “I dream of a day where there are no reports of a child drowning.”
His son continues to do all he can to make that dream come true.
“Marvin knows how to work with groups of people and to bring them together and give them that confidence to swim. And he instills that confidence in the kids by working with them quietly and getting them to feel good about themselves,” said Anna Summerfeld, General Chair of Maryland Swimming. “He doesn’t do it for any glory for himself and that’s what is so endearing about this program. He does it because he knows it’s good for the community, he knows it’s good for the kids and in the long run he knows it’s good for society.”
While he is grateful to receive the award, Thorpe is more excited about the platform it offers, his chance to speak about his lifelong passion and the benefits that come to children when they learn how to swim.
“Obviously it’s a survivor skill, a life skill, but it also helps them in other areas. And when they overcome the fear of learning how to swim, it gives them confidence in those other things,” he said. “I say to them, ‘Hey if you can do this, then there’s nothing you can’t do.’
"When you face this at school, when you do this at home — don’t run from it. At least try and look what you can do when you at least try. You can see it in their eyes — they get that. So that’s my dance right there, that is what I love to see.”