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The National Black Heritage Championship Swim Meet

5/23/2012

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

The National Black Heritage Championship Swim Meet is like no swim meet you’ve attended. Do your swim meets host a community breakfast? Do your swim meets host a coaches’ dinner? Do your swim meets provide a kid-friendly Saturday Night Dance (this year taking place at a disco) for swimmers to enjoy? Do your swim meets bring in guest speakers? Provide swim clinics? Alumni relays?

No?

Sounds fun though, doesn’t it?

This weekend in North Carolina, the National Black Heritage Championship Swim Meet celebrates its 10th year by hosting 43 swim teams and almost 900 swimmers from around the country. (894 swimmers are expected, to be exact.) Attending teams hail from mostly the east coast, from the Carolinas, to Maryland, Virginia, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and a handful of other states. It’s a weekend-long championship format meet, though swimmers of a broad spectrum of competition levels are expected to attend.

“Our goal is to get more minority kids involved in swimming,” Kathy Cooper, the meet director, says. “And ultimately, our goal is to prevent drowning. This is just a step in the way. It’s a completely volunteer effort. We love the sport and love the children.”

She adds: “We’ve got different levels of kids who are really good, and kids who can barely swim. We hope the older kids can inspire the younger kids to keep doing it.”

Now celebrating its 10th year, the Black Heritage Meet primarily focuses on providing a fun atmosphere for everyone – coaches, parents, and swimmers. It’s a weekend-long festival that brings together those in the swimming community (not just African Americans, but a diverse range of swimmers) to celebrate the sport.

“We have all ages, all races,” Kathy says. “We call it the black heritage meet, but it’s very diverse.”

It’s a rare swim meet that focuses not only on the nuts and bolts of competitive swimming, but on swimming culture.

“We call it a championship, but it’s more developmental,” Kathy says. “Some kids can barely swim. But what we like about it is it gives the kids who don’t swim as fast to see the really fast swimmers, and get really encouraged by it.”

The meet has attracted Olympian speakers in the past, including Cullen Jones and Maritza Correia. This year, Sabir Muhammad will talk to the kids and swim two exhibition races on Sunday morning. Bringing role models from the swimming community is a thrilling experience for kids in attendance, especially those who don’t get many opportunities to see Olympic-level swimming up-close and personal.

“It’s been a good, inspirational thing. When Cullen came, the kids swam against him, it was so exciting for the kids,” Kathy says. “We just want to get kids excited about the sport.”

The swim meet is more like a family reunion than a cut-and-dry swim championship. The highlight of the weekend, among other outside-the-pool activities, is the Saturday Night Dance. Coming from the YMCA Swimming culture, I can’t stress how fun these social function swim meet dances are. To celebrate their 10th year anniversary, the Black Heritage Swim Meet is going to a disco.

“We have a party on Saturday night for the kids. We’ve changed it up each year. We went to a kids museum the past few years, but this year we are having a disco party for them to celebrate the 10th year.”

Ultimately, the meet is about having fun. And why not? Why shouldn’t swim meets incorporate more organized activities? “Fan-friendly meets” are few and far between. Sometimes, it’s refreshing when a swim meet focuses on the experience as much as the performance. The meet also hands out trophies instead of top-three ribbons, and even gives participation awards. No one goes home empty-handed.

“We also give a participation award to all the teams. Whether they win or not, they get an award shaped in the state of North Carolina,” Kathy says.

Though it takes more coordination and event planning, it’s possible more of these swimming festivals may emerge around the country. Weekend-long celebrations of sport that bring together families, parents, coaches, and swimmers certainly are more fan-friendly. Swimmers seem to enjoy them, too. It’s a meet template that is admired for its creativity and aspiration.

“We’d like to grow,” Kathy says. “We always think we can get to a 1000 swimmers. We may take it around the country and let people use our example.”

Sounds fun to me.