Three-year-old Charlie Dobson grabbed hold of her dad in a small therapy pool at the local YMCA.
Instead of tensing up when her body hit the water, Dobson became fascinated with the older kids playing in the larger pool nearby. She was never afraid.
“I just wanted to be in the pool with the other kids,” she said. “I became so focused, so motivated.”
Growing up, Dobson thought most Black children swam. She was accustomed to having Black instructors. But the older she became, the more she realized that swimming was simply not a reality for most Black children.
Dobson’s mother, who learned to swim as an adult, decided that both her children would learn to swim at a young age. The sport became a regular activity in their household. By the time Dobson was age 13, she was assisting her swimming instructor with classes, and by age 16, she was teaching swim classes solo.
“I think I was surprised learning that other kids did not swim,” she said. “I grew up being taught by Black instructors. I took swimming lessons in the Flint schools. It was a norm for me to see Black people swimming.”
The history of Black America being segregated in public spaces is still felt today. Blacks weren’t allowed in public parks and pools prior to the Desegregation Act of 1964. Even afterward, there were still incidents where Blacks were not wanted in those spaces. This includes the famous incident captured in 1964 by photograph Horace Cort of a motel manager pouring muriatic acid into a pool filled with protestors in Florida.
“Research consistently shows Black youth ages 5 to 19 drown in swimming pools at a rate more than six times that of white children,” according to Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit that offers a swim scholarship program to expose Black children to swimming. “This public health disparity is due largely to decades of segregation and exclusion from public pools and beaches.”
Though she loved swimming, she would eventually walk away from the sport that often left her in predominantly white spaces. Dobson instead focused on track and field sports until she realized that she needed to go back to swimming as part of her training for track.
It’s during that time, she realized that she needed to do something to introduce more Black children to swimming.
“Swimming is a time [when] I can really hear God for myself,” Dobson said. “During one of my practices, I had a vision of me teaching again. The vision was so strong that I could see a lot of kids around me and a vision of me putting them in water.”
She launched We Swim Aquatics, LLC., in the Flint, Mich. area where she has taught more than 100 people to swim. She said she currently has 80 students enrolled in group or private lessons, and she consistently has a waiting list. About 95 percent of her clients are Black.
Dobson said the lack of Black representation prevents Blacks from feeling welcomed in the swimming world. She said it’s rare to have a Black instructor.
“I knew it could be a need, and I knew the representation aspect of it,” Dobson said of the lack of Black swim instructors. “What I’ve been learning, that’s one of the reasons why people steer away from swimming. I knew me being in that position was just an open door for Black people to feel welcomed in the water.”
For more information about Outdoor Afro's program, Making Waves, visit their website here. The organization is taking applications through May 15, 2022.
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