As summer draws nearer, anticipation for beach, pool, and lake days grows. Nationwide, Outdoor Afro looks forward to time outside with family and friends – as well as the wonder of weightlessness and the joy of cooling immersion that the water provides. Our network is in constant pursuit of deeper connections to nature, bringing Black people together in community and water-focused activities. Black people have faced exclusion from public pools and beaches over the course of the 20th century. Swimming areas were segregated through the 1960s, and Black people did not benefit from the pools and swim clubs built in white neighborhoods either. This deliberate prohibition has resulted in a great disparity in who has access to swimming and water safety, and by extension, the many sports and activities for which swimming is a foundational skill. I like sailing, fishing, kite surfing, or water polo.
Outdoor Afro is working to change this through its Making Waves program, a program designed to help increase access to swimming for Black families across the United States. The program provides swim scholarships to children and their caregivers. Learning to swim is first about survival: knowing how to gauge safe swimming conditions, gaining water confidence, and moving efficiently in the water in a relaxed manner. Once achieved, swimming opens the door to a new world, truly, as 70 percent of the earth is covered by water. It has been called the best form of exercise because it’s easy on joints and builds muscle tone all over as the body works against the water’s resistance. I am fortunate to have had my mother take my brother and me to swimming lessons when I was around 3 years old.
My mom didn’t know how to swim and took classes at the same time. To this day, swimming is the exercise in which she finds the most ease, and it has helped her manage chronic pain. Swimming has been a refuge for me as well. As a kid, I was always happiest when playing in any body of water, and I participated in swim teams throughout childhood. I became a lifeguard and swim instructor in high school and college. These roles allowed me to be around the water and were some of the best paying jobs around. In adulthood, I now swim for exercise and injury management; I’ve swam in triathlons, and I still enjoy open water swimming. Above all, it’s always brought me massive joy. If you are a beginner swimmer looking to increase your water confidence and have more fun at the beach or pool this summer, here are my recommended tips to get started and build a rewarding lifelong relationship with water:
CHANNEL YOUR ANCESTORS. The most important thing for you to know about swimming is that you belong in the water; it is your heritage. Historically, West Africans were proficient swimmers at a young age. Swimming, boating, and fishing were integral to our cultural practice, including spiritual beliefs, economies, social structures, political institutions and worldviews. In Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora, Professor Kevin Dawson’s research reveals how descendants of Africans demonstrated aquatic fluencies at home as well as while enslaved in the Americas. West Africans built and navigated the waters in dugout canoes. They spear fished. They evaded enemies by swimming. Reading this scholarship brought new meaning into my understanding of our powerful water-based legacy.
LEARN THE FUNDAMENTALS OF WATER SAFETY. Understanding the risks of being in and around water is the first step to becoming a strong and safe swimmer. Familiarize yourself with water safety tips from the American Red Cross, where you will find a national database of swim instruction available near you.
FLOAT ON. AND ON. AND ON. Once you’re comfortable in the water, floating is a survival technique as well as a restorative practice. You can float when you’re too tired to swim anymore, and you can float simply to relax and be present in your surroundings. Practice by laying on your back in shallow water with arms and legs extended. Have an experienced swimmer support you by standing next to you, gently placing a hand under your lower back. Press your hips to the sky. Cup your hands slightly, fingers together, and slowly move water towards your body, and then flip your hands and push water away. This is called sculling. Each body floats differently, depending on muscle mass, body fat percentage and your body’s surface area. Most people can’t float without some gentle movement, such as sculling or a gentle flutter kick. Practice and discover exactly how much movement it takes for you to float with ease.
JUST BREATHE. After learning to float, your next priority is regulating your breath. Once you do so, the experience of swimming can be quite calming and beneficial to your overall health. Swimming increases lung capacity and breath endurance. Interestingly, one study compared swimmers’ lung capacity to that of elite football players and found that the swimmers had larger lungs and better cardiorespiratory function.
PRACTICE BLOWING BUBBLES. Swimming proficiently for any length of time requires putting your face in the water. You can try this at home. Fill a basin with water and get comfortable dunking your face right in. Whenever your face is in the water, you are always blowing air out of your nose and mouth – never holding your breath. After you’ve pushed the last drop of air from your lungs, lift your head out of the water and inhale through your mouth slowly. Repeat. As you gain comfort, practice turning your head to either side to inhale, as you will when you learn the crawl stroke or freestyle stroke.
TAKE A SHOWER. We are not trying to have damaged hair or dry, ashy skin. Not only is it good hygiene to rinse yourself off before going into a body of water, but also allowing your hair and skin to absorb fresh water means that your cells and follicles have less room to absorb damaging chlorine or salt.
TRY TO CREATE GOOD CONDITIONS FOR LEARNING. Your local YMCA, YWCA, or community pool will offer lessons for children and adults. Outdoor Afro even offers “Swimmerships™” (swim lesson scholarships) through its Making Waves program. If you have options, shop around and find an instructor you’re comfortable with and in a supportive learning environment at that. It can feel hard to try to learn a new skill as an adult, too. Settle into a mindset in which you’re patient with yourself and open to learning and growth. Find a bathing suit you feel good in. Check out Black-owned soulcap.com for swim caps designed to fit our various hairstyles and hair volumes. Get a pair of swim goggles to protect your eyes from chlorine and to make it quicker to transition between being above and under the water.
WEAR FINS. When you’re practicing on your own, fins are a great support to use to learn how to kick. When you kick with fins your body naturally executes a flutter kick emanating from your core and hips. It’s easy for beginners to want to bend their knees to kick – a motion which will get you nowhere.
AVOID FLOATATION DEVICES. You will find varying opinions on this, but my opinion is that flotation devices are important for safety on open water, but while learning to swim, they can provide a false sense of security. Children who wear floatation devices often feel overconfident in deep water before they are truly able to keep themselves safe at that depth. Wearing a floatation device may tempt a new swimmer to not pursue stronger skills. Better to stay within a swim area where you can stay safe. Progress to deeper water as your skills advance.
DON’T STOP PRACTICING. Learning how to swim takes consistency – some estimate it takes 75-100 hours of lessons and practice to become proficient. It may take five years of swimming once or twice a week to become a comfortable lap swimmer, but you’ll become strong enough to be safe and enjoy yourself well before that. And of course, have fun! Find your own water joy, whether it is the peace and quiet that comes from ducking underwater, riding waves in the ocean, or floating for relaxation. Or picking up a sport like stand-up paddle boarding or windsurfing. Oh! And don’t forget to bring a friend or family member along with you.
Underwater, action shots by Joe Klementovich: @klementovitch; portrait shot by Philip Keith: @philipckeith_