Fit Nation: Swimming past African-American issues with fear and competency in water

Chip Greenidge

Story highlights

  • Water exercising and swimming can have tremendous health benefits
  • Learning how to swim is something that African Americans have been traditionally denied

Six CNN viewers have been selected to be part of the 2015 Fit Nation triathlon team. They'll race alongside Dr. Sanjay Gupta in the Nautica Malibu Triathlon in September. As they train, the six will share their stories about their Fit Nation experience.

(CNN)When I told my dad that I was going to be in a triathlon, he said, "You know you have to swim in the ocean. Do you know how to swim?"

And I thought to myself, "Do I really know how to swim?" When I was young, my dad would often pass down knowledge from his grandmother, Ruth Greenidge, who emigrated from Barbados to Boston, about swimming in the sea: "Only fools and fish swim in the ocean."
He told me she would only go waist-deep to wade in the water because she knew the dangers that could lie in the murky waters. This familial proverb was passed down from generation to generation and seemed to convey that African-Americans really did not belong in, and should be fearful of, the water. I found my great-grandmother's words of wisdom particularly interesting as I started my CNN Fit Nation triathlon training in January; I knew swimming was going to be a challenge for me.
    Traditionally, African-Americans have faced disadvantages in learning how to swim. It is not, as many put it, that we simply aren't cut out for swimming. A CNN article and a recent study by USA Swimming stated that 70% of African-American children cannot swim, compared with nearly 60% for Hispanic children and 42% for white children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-American children between the ages of 5 and 14 are three times more likely to drown than white children in the same age range.
    As a current PhD student in Sociology in Race and Urban Studies at Georgia State University, I have learned that there are many confounding factors why these statistics might be true. Was it that African-Americans lacked access to quality pools and cost-effective swimming lessons in urban and rural settings? Was it that we had common issues around hair-care maintenance and water? Or did generational proverbs from our ancestors keep creeping up to remind us that seawater, and being near the ocean, was not too kind to our people?
    While it might not address many of these questions, there has been an increased interest in providing opportunities for African-Americans youth in the inner city to learn how to swim and break the cycle of their fear of water.
    As a young person, I was terrified of the sea; seaweed and jellyfish were a major concern of mine that would send me running to the sand. Moreover, being a child of the 1970s, haunting "Jaws" theme music would always play in my mind as I'd tread water in the ocean. I never got over this fear as I entered into adulthood.
    Over the last four months, I challenged myself to get accustomed to the water by getting in the pool. But in order to get ready for the triathlon, I had to prepare myself in order to successfully compete. I always hated the smell of pool chlorine, changing clothes and then having to go back to work, but I had to work through it.
    I started by doing several laps, treading water, getting used being in the deep end, and learning how to float again. One thing I found was that swimming in the water was easier on my joints than other exercises; the more I swam and exercised in the pool, the more weight would fall off and the more agile I became. Swimming helped with my flexibility and resistance training as well. Water exercising and swimming can have tremendous health benefits and this was an epiphany for me.
    I became more confident as the weeks progressed. During our recent mock trial in the ocean, my teammates were surprised that I was one of the first people out of the water. I don't know what happened -- it all just started to click. It was probably the swimming exercises, or maybe it was my great-grandmother watching over me in the Pacific Ocean.
    As the old Negro spiritual "Wade in the Water" concludes: "that water was route to freedom." As an African-American, I am breaking the cycle of the fear of water by embracing the water as a new mode of exercise. I am achieving my own personal freedom of getting in shape and staying healthy while conquering my long-held fears.
    This September, as part of a triathlon in Malibu, California, I am going to have to swim a half-mile in open seawater. The lessons I have learned in CNN Fit Nation in swimming have been tremendous. I hope and pray that my great-grandmother and ancestors will be wading in the water with me and at the finish line. I am counting on them.