Yuen: New U of M dean learned to swim, and inspires the next generation to jump in

·6 min read

Perhaps the North Side kids who see the kind lady in the pool, with her long sisterlocks and warm smile, won't know the depths of her accomplishment.

They may not have heard that she was born to a nurse and a bread delivery man, and that her father, the eldest of 13 in Jamaica, had to quit school at age 7. That his daughter would go on to the Ivy League, earn a doctorate in urban planning, and become the first dean of color at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The kids will just hear her cheering them, maybe as they reach for her hand, as she helps them glide along the water and makes sure they get to the other side.

This is exactly where Nisha Botchwey wants to be.

"A good friend of mine refers to me as 'Dr. Playdate,' " she said. "When I move with people, that gives me energy."

Those who accuse academics of never venturing past the walls of their ivory towers apparently have never met Botchwey, who started the job in January, committing to strengthen the U's relationships with surrounding communities. A triathlete herself, she'll be rooting on kids competing in their first triathlon on Saturday, a miniature version of the swim-bike-run race, at North Commons Park. It's hosted by V3, a group trying to build an infrastructure of swimming and other youth activities in north Minneapolis.

Why is Botchwey hopping into the water to help nervous kids work their way across a pool?

"I'm most excited to be an example for these kids, around showing up and taking the next step," she told me.

Botchwey's advocacy in the pool is a surprising development for someone who was in her 40s by the time she learned to swim.

"A dear friend of mine texted me and essentially said, 'We're going to do this triathlon,' " she recalled of that conversation about five years ago.

"But I don't know how to swim," Botchwey wrote back.

"Well, it's in October," replied the friend, "so you have 10 months."

She signed up for six weeks of classes at the Y. Botchwey said she inhaled a lot of water through her nose, and her heart was beating out of her chest. But by the end of her six weeks, she was finally able to swim to the end of the pool.

Over the next several months, she committed herself to being in the pool an hour a day, five days a week. Some days she would swim. Some days she would float. Other days, she would just walk the lane.

But those steps prepared her for her first triathlon. And once she competed, she was hooked.

Fellow triathlete Erika Binger, the founder of V3, said Botchwey has been busy engaging youth in the community ever since she moved to Minnesota. Binger recognizes Botchwey's power to inspire. "She's a Black triathlete," Binger said, noting how rare that is. "I want our kids in north Minneapolis to look up to someone they can relate to and aspire to."

V3 has raised $12 million out of $20 million needed to build a facility at Lyndale and Plymouth avenues with a teaching pool, warm-water therapy pool and other amenities.

'Water is dangerous'

Born in Jamaica, Botchwey grew up in the Miami area and returned to the island every summer as a kid, relishing each opportunity to be on the beach or in the ocean. But dog-paddling marked the extent of her swimming abilities.

"I had the opportunity to be in the water, but I didn't have the instruction," she recalled. "What we were often told was: 'Don't go past a certain point. Water is dangerous.' My parents didn't go to the beach. They didn't know how to swim."

She remembers showing up at a pool for a summer water camp as a middle-schooler, wearing "the ugliest lifejacket," one that her mother had found for her. She learned to snorkel while sticking to the shallow end.

Botchwey is reminded of her childhood each time she visits pools and observes Black kids in the water, tossing a football or playing Marco Polo — but not in the deep end, not treading water, not swimming laps.

In the United States, Black children ages 10 to 14 are more than seven times likelier to drown in swimming pools than white children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Black kids are also less likely to know how to swim.

That has been the case for generations. Racist practices often kept African Americans from accessing public swimming pools and beaches. When pools were forced to desegregate, some white communities filled them with concrete and shut them down rather than open them up to Black families.

In the Twin Cities, Black-owned newspapers as far back as the the 1920s and '30s reported how pools restricted use for African American communities. "For twenty years, citizens of St. Paul have been trying to get a class at the 'Y' for Negro boys, but to no avail," according to a 1936 article in the Minneapolis Spokesman.

Stories like these help Botchwey make sense of the world. As a researcher and educator, she's long been fascinated by how our environment influences our choices — and how those choices, over time, lead to healthy or unhealthy outcomes.

As a mother, she was determined to gift her three children with the ability to swim — by signing them up for a club swim team. (As she explains it, this route was cheaper than paying for years of swim lessons, and it guaranteed them an hour of swimming time five days a week for an entire summer.) Of course, she also incentivized them with doughnuts at the end of every practice.

Her kids, now 13, 17 and 20, stuck with competitive swimming for years.

"That's what I want all of our kids to have — the choice to say yes," she said, as well as the option to say no, based on desire rather than ability.

When she's in the pool this Saturday, Botchwey says, she'll encourage anxious children to simply take the next step.

"And then maybe the next one, and the next one," she said, "and allow that wave of your community to push you."

And let the water hold you, she said, to carry you to the end.

If you go

The V3 Youth Triathlon will start 11 a.m. Saturday at North Commons Park, 1801 James Av. N., Mpls. Distances will be short; no practice is necessary. Visit bit.ly/3cFelko for more information.