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A Historic Sprint Roster

1/30/2013

By Mike Gustafson//CorrespondentNathan Adrian (medium)

As the water droplets settle from last summer’s Olympic Games, we step back and analyze what happened. There were record-breaking swims: Michael Phelps earned his 22nd Olympic medal; Rebecca Soni broke the 2:20 barrier. There were age-defying swims: 36-year-old Jason Lezak competed in the 400 freestyle relay; 15-year-old Katie Ledecky claimed the 800m freestyle. There were world records, American records, comebacks, break-out performances, and once-in-a-lifetime swims.

There were historic swims, too.

For the first time ever, on the men’s side, the entire American sprint freestyle roster consisted of swimmers from a diverse range of races. Cullen Jones, who is African American, qualified in both the 50m and 100m freestyle. Anthony Ervin, who is Jewish, African American, and Native American, qualified in the 50m. And Nathan Adrian, who is half-Chinese, qualified in the 100m.

Anthony Ervin (medium)A few months before the Olympic Trials, I wrote about the possibility that the United States could feature a diverse sprint roster. I wrote that, with Anthony Ervin’s resurgence to the competitive pool, the United States could feature the most diverse roster ever assembled. Never before in the history of U.S. Olympic swimming has an entire event been represented by swimmers from different races. Then, last July, it happened.

It’s a change from what swimming has historically been: a mostly-white sport. Put it into context: just twelve years ago, Anthony Ervin became the first-ever U.S. swimmer of African-American descent to win Olympic gold. Flash-forward to London, where both the 50m and 100m freestyles were represented by swimmers who hailed from Jewish, Chinese, African-American, and Native American backgrounds.

Talking with swim coaches around the country who coach mostly minority swim teams, this type of diverse elite Olympic representation makes a slight change in perspective to their own swimmers. Coaches have told me that when their own swimmers, whatever race or ethnicity they may be, see someone who looks like them achieve the highest level of sport, it’s just one more facet of a swimmer’s self-identification, one more step saying, “Hey, I can be an Olympic swimmer. I can become that.”

Certainly, swimmers like Cullen, Anthony, or Nathan should not have to carry the banner of being the face ofCullen Jones (medium) diversity in American swimming. And it’s an oversimplification to look at this and then conclude any statement like, “Things are changing.” Anthony himself has been wary about that label of being the first swimmer of African American descent to win Olympic gold. Being half-black and half-Jewish, quoted in Rolling Stone, "I didn't know a thing about what it was like to be part of the black experience," Ervin said. "But now I do. It's like winning gold and having a bunch of old white people ask you what it's like to be black. That is my black experience."

But at the same time, the fact that a broad range of swimmers qualified this summer is significant to recognize. The United States is a nation where nearly 70% of African American children cannot swim, and almost 60% of Hispanic children cannot swim, compared to around 40% of Caucasians, according to the USA Swimming Foundation, in a study conducted by the University of Memphis. It’s a sport where only a handful of swimmers of different races and ethnicities and backgrounds have ever worn an American flag cap at the Olympics.

Swimming is a sport for everyone. It’s a sport for whites and for blacks, for the rich and the poor, for the young and the old. This summer at the 2012 Olympic Trials, two men’s swimming event rosters were filled by minority swimmers.

Makes you wonder where we’ve been, and where, hopefully, we’ll go…

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @MikeLGustafson.