By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Last year, I met Jim Ellis for the first time. Jim Ellis is perhaps the most famous name associated with diversity in competitive swimming in our country. His story was fictionalized in the mainstream movie, “Pride.” The movie was loosely based on his life coaching in the inner city of Philadelphia for the Department of Recreation (PDR) and growing a team of stellar primarily African American swimmers. Almost a year ago, I met Jim at the grand opening of his new pool -- a 10-million dollar facility at the Salvation Army Kroc Center in Philadelphia. Currently, Jim is in the process of building another team of aquatic superstars.
To kick off National African American History Month, which begins today, I thought I would catch up with Jim and discuss his new swim team, his thoughts on diversity in swimming and his goals for the future. The hour-long interview covered many topics, and it’s an honor to share someone’s perspective with so much history with the cause of diversity in swimming. I will upload the interview in a series of parts, beginning with today.
The last time we spoke, you were opening the Salvation Army Pool for the Army vs. Navy swim meet. Have you established an age group swim team in the new pool?
Yes I have. The team has about 45 members. What we did was primarily recruit females.
Why did you do that?
When I was at PDR, I started with young men. But the young men overshadowed our females. When we got to Nationals, we didn’t score points with our females. Our men always did well. This time around, I said, “I’ll flip the script. And I’ll start with females.”
One thing is, I do want all levels of swimmers in our program -- not just the ones we think can make Nationals. We want to provide a positive experience for anyone that wants to swim. But I do recruit females to get me where I want to go.
Where do you want to go?
I want to go to the Olympics. Project 2016. It’s what we’re trying to push. Trying to sell. Trying to market. Trying to get corporate sponsorship. I want people to get on board now, while the program is in its infancy. With the Salvation Army and our own marketing department, we have the tools to get that out there so people want to buy it.
The second issue is, African American females, I want to empower them in the sport because, for one, there’s a lot of scholarship money in college with the Title IX program. African American females don’t swim a lot because they [are concerned] about their hair. Swimming is a great sport, and it offers so much more. Philadelphia is a basketball town. A lot of young ladies who could be great swimmers are playing basketball. I want to bring something different to our community. I want to empower females.
What has been the kids’ reaction for the new pool?
The biggest issue is that they don’t know anything else. The people we have here didn’t come with me from the other pool [PDR]. Three or four kids. A lot of people take things for granted. It’s an entitlement thing in today’s society. We have a great facility here.
Your old pool had bullet holes.
Yeah. Our old pool, we didn’t have heat in the wintertime. No hot water. No showers. We had a whole lot of problems. Bad lighting. Dead of winter, it was bad. We never knew what we were going to get into in that building, especially morning workouts.
Kids don’t know how bad it can be?
I constantly remind them what it is that we have. This is our home. This is a place we can really cherish.
Do you have any superstars in the making?
Absolutely. We have a couple of girls who might have been Top 16, 10 and under. They’re 11 and under this year. I have a girl who was 2nd in the 100 fly, 2nd in the 50 fly in the USA Swimming time search. She’s been 1:05 in the 100 fly in November, and she’s 10. She’s a unique story. We picked her up from Cherry Hill, NJ. She is very talented. We saw that she was missing some things training-wise. We picked her up last April and she was 1:17 in the 100 fly as a 9-year-old. Through this summer and training, she’s at 1:05.
What are some of the differences between PDR and your team now?
That’s a good question. I think the first difference is that we have our own pool. We have a pool that says someone is committed to what we do. Someone supports what we do. I come here every day knowing that we have 10 lanes if we want. The water is warm. Chemicals are right. Lights are on. Equipment is here. It’s our home. No one is breaking into the building. That’s a start.
That empowers me. I don’t work two jobs anymore. I used to teach school and work for the Rec. Dept. Now, my whole being is coming into the pool at the crack of dawn, at 5:15am. We had our morning practice, I stayed all day, recorded some times, and workouts, and hey, I’m getting ready for afternoon workout right now.
That must focus you.
It does. I was a math teacher when I was teaching. I always said, “I could compete with the big boys in swimming if I was a professional coach. If I could just coach all day...”
It’s the first day of National Black History Month. What do you think we can do to get more African American kids in the water, and on competitive swim teams?
We need facilities. That’s one. We need access to facilities. I don’t care how you slice it. We need access to facilities. You can talk on that subject for a while. I think access [is important].
And then maintaining and understanding what water can do. That’s what I’m trying to sell here. My swim team is my calling card. People marvel at the kids training. Next thing you know, people sign their kids for swimming lessons. Coming here at the Salvation Army, where we’re endowed for 10 years, people have never seen kids train. Never been part of that, or seen that side of the coin. Our membership marvels at the kids who are committed and come to the pool every day, 2-3 hours a day. They’re looking at something they’ve never seen before. They’re chomping at the bit to see a swim meet. I think that needs to be done.
Also our heroes need to be real heroes in the sport. You know. Tell the story of how they got to the top. Training is the essence of the sport. When they talk about Michael Phelps, it’s his training. Or Katie Hoff. Or Kate Ziegler. It’s how hard they train. With African American athletes, they never talk in that sense. Same thing with PDR. It was always a human interest story. If you look back at articles about us, they don’t talk about how they train. We train hard. After NCAAs last year, I wrote a few emails. There were two men of color in the 200 free. Great race. But they didn’t show it on TV.
Our kids have to realize the benefits in our sport. The sport is costly. A lot of minority kids whose parents are not making good money, they can’t afford it. It becomes an elite activity if you don’t find sponsorship money. You have to be creative marketing the sport. That’s something I want to do. I want people to value and work for the scholarships we give.