The Buffalo City Swim Racers (BCSR) is a unique club that serves the city of Buffalo by providing free swim lessons for families. Head coach Mike Switalski, a former Division III All-American swimmer from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, talks about mistakes some coaches make when reaching out to different communities that they are not familiar with, why communities come together after a tragedy, and what swimming will look like in the future.
Why does it take a tragedy in the community for people to understand the importance of being safe in and around a body of water?
People take safety for granted. They think they are safe to wade into water that they can stand in. What many people do not consider is the reality that anything can happen in the water; they could slip or lose their balance. In a lake or stream, a sinkhole could occur like in Shreveport, LA a few years ago. Humans are still subject to the whims of the environment, which can turn to tragedy quickly.
Sometimes people are over-confident about their abilities. I have gone into schools and asked kids if they know how to swim. I get a lot of head nodding that they know how to, but then I ask, “if I threw you into 10 feet of water, could you get yourself to the side of the pool?” and, all the hands go down. The fatal drowning rate of African American children ages 5-14 is almost three times that of white children of the same age.
BCSR’s mission is to save the lives of minority and culturally diverse children by teaching them how to swim, providing opportunity for competition, and enabling them with water safety skills that will last a lifetime.
What can be done to increase the diversity of swimming?
I think clubs and coaches need to have compassion and empathy for the challenges disadvantaged families face on a daily basis. The majority of times, the families and children have the desire to swim but not the opportunity because of finances or transportation. A club, if it truly wanted, could find the means to still include that family or families in their program.
When you talk about the various under-represented populations that are relatively uninvolved in our sport, I think it is a matter of disproving myths and offering up mentors or role models that are involved in the sport, like Cullen Jones, Sabir Muhammed, Maritza Correia and Lia Neal to name a few. I also think we need to aggressively pursue these populations and make them feel that the sport of swimming is for them.
USA Swimming has started to do some of this by using photos of those populations in their collateral materials. We want to create opportunity for culturally diverse students—who previously did not have access due to racial, ethnic or economic factors—to foster lifelong habits to be physically active, eat healthy, perform academically and exhibit positive behaviors.
What do you think is the number one mistake that coaches make when trying to reach out to different ethnic audiences in their communities?
I don’t think coaches really reach out to different ethnic audiences. I believe most clubs rely on word of mouth, publicity, and people visiting whatever public facility they might use, to build the numbers in their program. I don’t think that is enough in the communities we work with. A large portion of the population that we see does not trust outsiders. Trust must be established through visibility, action, honesty and transparency. They have been made promises before that a program is going to come into their community and provide them or their children opportunities, only to see the program never appear or to exist for only a brief moment in time. Coaches need to go into their community, away from their traditional swimming families, build enthusiasm for the sport, and then talk about how their program can help. We host parent/family meetings at schools. Our practices are open to anyone that would like to observe. We also invite public figures to meet the kids and speak with them so they can see firsthand the positive effects of pursuing their goals.
What do you think the future of swimming will look like?
In the past decade, we have seen the faces in USA Swimming change and the membership grow. While we have seen more individuals from diverse backgrounds make the US Olympic Team, I am not convinced that we have really seen the percentages change in terms of ethnic make-up. The demographics of USA Swimming should parallel the demographics of the United States, but it does not. Is it because of stereotyping, economic or cultural reasons? Or is it because clubs are unwilling to step outside the traditional family dues structure in order to find alternative sources of revenue to fund financially challenged families, to grow their membership, and change the demographics of our wonderful sport? BCSR is working one child and community at a time to change those numbers.
Click here for part one