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The Record The (Hackensack, NJ)

Walls fall for black swimmers
November 20, 2008
Section: LOCAL
Edition: The Hackensack Record: All Editions
Page: L03
SARAH SCHILLACI, STAFF WRITER
Caption: PHOTO - ELIZABETH LARA/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER - Bruce Wigo of the International Swimming Hall of Fame telling students about the history of black swimmers.

PATERSON — The chief executive officer of the International Swimming Hall of Fame had a question Wednesday morning for the students at Windsor Preparatory High School.

"How many of you can swim?" Bruce Wigo asked the room of teenagers.

About half of the students raised their hands, and Wigo clarified the question.

"Can you swim the length of the room?"

Half of the hands went down.

"In deep water?"

More hands fell.

"And get there safely?"

Surveying the handful of arms still raised, Wigo presented a grim statistic: Blacks in America are nearly 15 times more likely to drown than whites. But, Wigo added, it wasn't always that way, and with Irvington native Cullen Jones winning a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, barriers that had prevented blacks from learning to swim are swiftly disappearing.

Wigo's presentation at the private school for children with behavioral problems came at the invitation of Windsor's principal, Sherrif Upton. A former college swimmer and water polo player, Upton was coaching water polo at St. Benedict's Preparatory School in Newark when he met Wigo.

The two maintained a relationship over the years, and when Wigo contacted Upton about a program he had researched about the history of black swimmers, Upton arranged for Wigo to appear in the school's gymnasium.

In a multimedia slide show called "Black Splash," Wigo tracked the history of black swimmers from the days when African fishermen were renowned for their aquatic abilities to the years after the Civil War, when blacks were prohibited from setting foot in public beaches and swimming pools.

Many of the clashes during the Civil Rights movement, Wigo said, occurred over unequal access to swimming pools, and the Black Panthers even started a swimming initiative.

Urban access to pools remains an obstacle to teaching black children to swim. A 2008 study of 1,800 children between the ages of 6 and 16 by the University of Memphis determined that more than half of the black and Latino children were swimmers of low ability and at risk of drowning. Only 31 percent of white children fell into that category.

Still, Wigo implored his audience to head to a local YMCA or Boys and Girls Club. With Jones' summer victory in China now a part of history, he said, "the last walls have fallen."

Upton, who presented Wigo with a Speedo swim brief as a token of the school's appreciation, said the staff and students were impressed by the presentation.

"A couple of students made jokes, but everyone seemed to have an upbeat attitude (about it)," Upton said. "I have had very positive feedback."

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E-mail: schillaci@northjersey.com.

Greg LouganisEraldo

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