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Turning the Tide

Blacks drown at nearly twice the rate of whites because of a lack of opportunity to swim and training. Lee Pitts is dedicated to teaching kids all the basics.


If you strike out in baseball, throw gutter balls in bowling or miss your shot in basketball, tennis, golf or virtually any other sport, life goes on.

But when it comes to swimming, "inability to perform the basics of the sport could mean the difference between life and death," says Lee Pitts, a Fort Myers, Fla., bank vice president and former competitive swimmer who has devoted much of his 35 years to helping eliminate an alarming racial gap between blacks and whites in their ability to swim.

Blacks drown at almost twice the rate of whites and represent only 1% of the country's competitive swimmers, but "not because African Americans can't swim," he says. "That's a myth."

The disparity is due to lack of opportunity and training, says Pitts, who recently produced and starred in the first instructional swimming video featuring a black teacher and students of various races.

"Waters: Beginner's Swim Lessons for Adults and Children With Lee Pitts" is designed to combat what Pitts calls "a paranoia about swimming" among some blacks that he says is rooted in past segregation, which made recreational waters off-limits to minorities.

"When I was a child growing up in Birmingham, Ala., I saw 'Flipper' on TV and wanted so badly to learn to swim," Pitts recalls. "But even though I saw white children swimming in the public pool every Sunday when I came from church, that pool was off-limits to me."

Then, in 1967, black philanthropist A.G. Gaston funded a Boys' Club near the Collegeville Housing Projects, where Pitts lived with his mother and six siblings.

"That pool became my life," Pitts recalls. He was 6 at the time. "I didn't want to go out and play basketball or baseball. All I wanted to do was swim. They used me as the person who demonstrated the basic strokes to the other kids, and it gave me a lot of self-esteem."

When Pitts was 9, he and his family moved to another neighborhood near a newly desegregated public pool. "Here was this nice, big pool, but none of the other black kids knew how to swim," says Pitts, who spent summer mornings collecting deposit bottles to pay the 50-cent admission to the pool. "And here I was, this little 9-year-old in the deep water, so the other kids asked me to teach them how to swim."

Pitts went on to become one of the few blacks on the 225-member Birmingham Parks and Recreation swim team, and one of the few blacks in the city to be certified as a lifeguard and water safety instructor. But despite his proficiency in the sport, he says, "I wasn't proud of the fact I was a good swimmer, because swimming wasn't a popular sport."

Pitts' attitude changed the day tennis legend Arthur Ashe spoke at a recreation center in the Birmingham area.

"He asked us what sports we liked, and even though I was wearing my swim team T-shirt, I said I liked basketball and baseball best," he recalls. "Later, he pulled me aside and said, 'If you swim better than everybody else, be proud of that fact.' "

Today, Pitts volunteers eight hours a week, teaching free swimming classes to inner-city children at the Fort Myers Stars Recreation Center. He estimates that he's taught thousands of African Americans to swim.

"It's important for parents to get their children enrolled in structured swimming classes early, because swimming is not just a sport, it's a survival skill," he says. "Plus, it's important for many job opportunities, since most police departments, fire departments and emergency medical jobs require swimming skills."

Elite groups in the military are required to swim, notes Fred Mael, a senior research psychologist at the Army Research Institute in Alexandria, Va. Yet a recent study of 2,500 West Point cadets showed that just 3% of the white cadets entered the school as nonswimmers, compared with 29% of the black cadets. And when 9,000 soldiers throughout the Army were surveyed, 84% of the white soldiers said they could swim by age 10, compared with just 33% of blacks.

This is one reason "blacks drown at almost twice the rate of whites," says epidemiologist Christine M. Branche-Dorsey of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Swimming ability is a graduation requirement at the predominantly black Albany (Ga.) State College, notes Wilburn Campbell, dean of the school of education and author of the book "Aquatics: Shades of Black and White" (Kendall Hunt), due out in September.

Campbell says that in 1968, about 68% of the freshman class couldn't swim, a figure he says has come down to about 48%.

Sociological factors are the main reason a smaller proportion of blacks can swim, Campbell says.

"The availability of pools is still a problem," he notes. "Swimming requires expensive facilities, while all you need for many sports is a ball. Also, having the ways and means to get to swim meets and pay for entry fees to compete is an important element."

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