How one woman is saving lives and breaking down stereotypes by teaching Black people swim

In 2019, the USA Swimming Foundation found that 64 percent of Black children have no or low swimming ability, compared to 40 percent of white children. Inspired by the lack of representation in the pool, Paulana Lamonier tweeted her goal of teaching 30 Black people to swim by the end of 2019. The tweet went viral and she received hundreds of replies, easily achieving her goal. Along the way, she also learned the reasons why some of her students never learned how to swim.

“They don't know how to swim because they were just taught to steer clear from the water. Their parents didn't know how to swim. So their parents are like, l don't know how to swim, I'm not going to put you in a situation where that would endanger you and myself.”

Today, the CDC reports that Black children ages 10-14 years old drown at rates 7.6 times higher in swimming pools than white children. The reality is that the Black experience has never been prioritized in swimming, so Lamonier has made that her mission. Last March, she launched Black People Will Swim, an organization created to smash stereotypes and empower Black swimmers.

“We are resisting the stereotype – that we've been told that we can't do it for so long. And not only are we going to do it, we're going to equip other people to have job opportunities, to equip themselves with the knowledge and tools to pass it on to their friends and family,” says Lamonier.

Video Transcript

PAULANA LEMONIER: The stereotype that Black people don't know how to swim because our bones are too dense, it was set on national television from the Vise President of the LA Dodgers.

- Why are Black men or Black people not good swimmers? Because they don't have the buoyancy.

PAULANA LEMONIER: It's like why don't enough Black people learn how to swim? Because you haven't created that space for us.

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: I'm Brittany Jones Cooper, and in this episode of Unmute I'm chatting with Paulina lemonier, a swim instructor on a mission to tackle stereotypes and empower more Black people to learn how to swim. You tweeted that you wanted to teach 30 Black people to learn how to swim. What inspired that?

PAULANA LEMONIER: I learned how to swim when I was younger. Thanks to like a local swim program my parents put me in, I became an assistant coach. I'm teaching five to seven-year-Olds how to swim, and then I took my talents to the YMCA where I really learned how to serve people in lower income communities. I had one student of mine and she was saying you know Black people can't swim because our bones are too dense. And then from that moment I realized well if this is a stereotype she has taken this as her truth, how many other false stereotypes that people may have taken to believe that it's facts?

From there the tweet just went viral. A lot of people were saying that you know they don't know how to swim because they were just taught to steer clear from the water. You know their parents didn't know how to swim. And so listen, I don't know how to swim, I'm not going to put you in a situation where that would endanger you and myself.

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: I think it's so powerful when you say how it's sort of passed down. My mom didn't know how to swim and I actually only was put in lessons after I had kind of a close call in a near drowning event in a pool. According to the CDC in swimming pools, Black children ages 10 to 14 years old drown at rates 7.6 times higher than white children. What do you attribute that to?

PAULANA LEMONIER: Lack of affordability, classes are expensive, lack of representation, and the access to pools. In New York history there's a thing called white flight. So as more Black people started going and moving into the cities, what happened? The affluent rich people, white people would move out to Eastern Long Island building their own Country Club, their-- building and creating their own private pools. And so New York City pools in Black or minority neighborhoods are not kept and maintained the same way that white country clubs out East. And then you're not afforded the swim lessons that other pools are afforded.

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: I think it's really important to bring in our country's history into this conversation because you mentioned Long Island. People talk about the architect of Long Island and how they actually made bridges shorter so that public buses from the city couldn't get to the beaches out there, cutting off Black and Brown people from getting access to those beaches. And so there is a long history of these systemic issues that now create this stereotype that Black people don't know how to swim. You've taken your skills and your knowledge, and you founded Black People Will Swim. So what do classes look like for you?

We have our four pillars called face, and it's fun. We'll make sure we're creating a fun environment. Awareness, we want to make sure you are aware of those statistics that you mentioned earlier. Community, we want to make sure we're having a good time, and most importantly education and knowing that listen, I'm smashing the stereotype, I'm learning how to swim, and we're going to conquer our fears together and it makes it so much more worthwhile.

BRITTANY JONES COOPER: You've said that teaching Black women to swim is an act of resistance. What do you mean by that?

PAULANA LEMONIER: When you hear back of the stories of older people I couldn't swim at this pool because of segregation, I couldn't learn how to swim because they weren't teaching Black people, it makes what I'm doing so much more worthwhile. When someone tells you you can't do it, Black people swim is to say like no, we can do it, we are resisting that stereotype that we've been told that we can't do it for so long. And so we are resisting and creating our own community, and equipping them on conquering their fears in the water.

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