A Pool of Opportunity in Harlem

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In Harlem, home to nearly 80,000 children and youth alone, there are fewer than a dozen public pools run by the New York City Parks Department, where kids can practice their cannon balls, tread water in the deep end, or just cool off during the summer months. However, the majority of these pools are outdoors, leaving children in our communities without many swimming options beyond Labor Day. It makes indoor pools, like the one at the Dunlevy Milbank Center, all the more important.

In addition to the intensive swim program during the Children’s Aid summer camp season, Milbank’s Olympic-sized pool has been home to the Stingrays since 2005. The swim program, which practices in the evenings during the regular school year, is comprised of over 60 kids, ages 6-18—the majority of whom are African-American and Latino and had never entered a pool before learning to swim at Milbank.

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64 percent of African-American children and 45 percent of Latino children have no or low swimming ability—a result of the decades of racial and economic discrimination that prevented these communities from accessing public swimming facilities. The impact is perhaps most visible at the competitive swimming level, which only saw boundaries broken by Simone Manuel during the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio as the first African-American woman to win an individual event in Olympic swimming. Manuel’s win highlighted the importance for children of color to see themselves represented in the sport. 

Members of the Stingrays are often the only African-American and Latino children at their swim competitions. Yet, it hasn’t stopped the young swimmers from outperforming their competitors. As part of USA Swimming, the national governing body for competitive swimming, the team collectively competes in meets across the New York area through the Metropolitan Swimming League. Five members of the Stingrays made it to the league’s regional junior Olympics in July 2016. Their success speaks to the rigorous swim instruction the team receives at Milbank, under the guidance of Coach Miguel Escalante. It also speaks to the talent and hard work in the children.

Morgon, 9, has been swimming since he was 4 years old. Both he and his sister Madison, 11, learned how to swim at Milbank. Their mothers, Trenise and Tawanda, signed them both up for lessons at the center to ensure that their children would feel safe and confident in large bodies of water. The decision turned the family into one of the program’s most involved swim families and has resulted in the children taking home many medals and trophies over the years from competitions. Morgon, in particular, has his eyes set on the Olympics at some point in his future, and Stingrays Coach Miguel believes he can get there. The young swimmer dominates in events like the 500-meter freestyle, 100-meter backstroke, and the 100-meter butterfly.

“The kids have made great strides and focus really hard in practice to execute their techniques at swim meets,” said Tawanda.

The family has also seen firsthand the positive impact that swimming can have on children; the sport has helped Madison with her sensory issues and Morgon adjust to Tourette’s syndrome, allowing both children to find a sense of tranquility when they are in the water. And of course, the children have found support outside of the water from their teammates.

The simple truth is that many children in New York City never learn to swim because they have very few opportunities to outside of the summer months. It’s what continues to perpetuate the swimming trends that have long defined African-American and Latino communities. Yet the Stingrays swim program shows that reversing these trends is not only possible, but it provides children with an invaluable life skill that keeps them safe in the water and equips them with confidence that can open up a world of opportunity for them outside of it too.

Interested in the Stingrays’ journey to the 2016 Junior Olympics? Read A Force in the Pool.