By Mike Watkins//Contributor
As far back as when he was a youngster accompanying his mother to a local swimming pool where she worked as a locker room attendant, Sabir Muhammad has been working toward an unselfish goal.
Making swimming accessible to everyone no matter their race.
It’s a mission he adopted from a host of coaches and mentors while growing up in inner-city Atlanta – and it’s something that he believes strongly in and works tirelessly to administer as someone who is a beacon for reaching under served communities.
“I actually learned to swim because of a near-drowning experience as a kid,” said Muhammad, father of four children, all former, current or future swimmers. “My parents wanted to make sure I was safe in and near the water – it wasn’t about me becoming an All-American or National Champion.
“Basic water safety and the ability to save themselves is at the core of this for me, not necessarily creating future Olympians.”
One of those coaching mentors who impacted Muhammad’s life in a profound way was Askia Bashir, the manager of the pool where his mother worked.
He created a swim team – the City of Atlanta Dolphins – initially comprised of his own six children and Muhammad – and the program grew from there to become one of the largest predominantly African-American clubs in the United States.
Bashir, who Muhammad identifies as one of the most influential in his swimming and personal life, passed away last March after battling lung cancer but continues his work through his pupil and friend.
“He was such a strong presence in my life, not just as a child but throughout my entire life,” Muhammad said. “It’s definitely one of my goals to make time to do him justice by doing the same kind of work that he did – not only giving minority children the opportunity to learn to swim but convincing them that they need to know how to swim.”
Eventually as aquatics director for all of Atlanta, Bashir developed more swimmers certified in CPR as lifeguards than any other city in the United States. He also instilled a sense of excellence in the community among his swimmers and worked to create summer jobs for youth who might otherwise have had no means to make money.
“He directed 30 outdoor natatoriums and 8 indoor pools within the community with a focus on training and certification for all of us,” Muhammad said. “He was the go-to guy to get a job, either as a lifeguard if you could swim, or working on the maintenance side of the pools.
“If you didn’t know how to swim when you started, you more than likely knew how to when you were done, even if you only worked maintenance. I did both when I was a kid, and he had a profound impact on my life and all kids’ lives in so many ways.”
Muhammad added that, at full strength, the Dolphins were an imposing crew when they would travel for swim meets in the mid-to-late 80s.
He said when he and his teammates initially started competing at meets, they were seen as the “cute little black children who swam.” But once they proved their prowess in the water, that attitude and outlook about them changed.
“At first, we were a novelty, and we were always welcomed, but once we started winning, those welcomes weren’t so forthcoming,” he said. “We were never treated as outsiders by other swimmers – I think, as children, we were all pretty oblivious to any racial differences – but my dad told me he felt a lack of acceptance from other parents.
“We were so young, we didn’t notice anything, but we grew up in this bubble where we were focused on the sport, so we didn’t really notice any differences.”
Outside of swimming, Muhammad, who helped found a learn-to-swim program with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta that eventually became a pilot program for USA Swimming's Make a Splash in 2007, works in the marketing department for Coca Cola. His focus involves using technology and data to advance Coke’s marketing capabilities.
When he’s not running 16-year-old son, Issa, to basketball practice or 13-year-old Kamal to swim practice – or picking up his five-year-old daughter, June Apple, from dance practice – Muhammad is committed to helping other young people enjoy the same benefits he did from swimming.
And as far as finding and creating new ways to continue to bridge the racial gap in the sport, Muhammad, who was the first African-American to compete for the Stanford men’s swim team, sees an opportunity with college summer swim camps by providing need-based scholarships.
He also sees opportunity for some of the bigger swim sponsors to step up and help with the fees associated with being members of swim clubs and programs to break down the barriers that keep poor but talented kids from participating and becoming better swimmers.
“Getting these kids out of their home environments and attending swim camps on universities not only helps them learn more about the sport but gives college coaches a chance to see undiscovered talent and gives the kids a chance to experience life in a college environment,” said Sabir, who attended camp at the University of Texas and was recruited by Eddie Reese to become a Longhorn.
“As I see it, this is a win-win for college and athletes. There’s definitely no lack of interest on the part of kids who want to participate and learn from where I sit here in Atlanta, and I know that’s the same in most of the large cities across the country.”
He wants to always do whatever he can to pay it forward – following in the footsteps of Mr. Bashir and the many other people who positively impacted his life in and out of the pool.
Having had a career that made him the first African-American to win a medal at a major international swimming competition in 2000 and set 10 American records, Muhammad said it’s easy to remember those who came before him, those who are here now and those who are still to come.
The gold-medal performances of Simone Manuel, Lia Neal and Tony Ervin this summer in Rio prove that while progress has been made, there is still opportunity for continued improvement in the process of finding, encouraging and nurturing talented swimmers from all walks of life.
“There never would have been a Sabir the swimmer without Mr. Bashir because I never would have competed on a swim team without his encouragement,” said Muhammad, a two-time Short Course World Championship medalist, a four-time US Open champion, a five-time World Cup Swimming champion and a two-time runner-up at US Nationals.
“His hand and other adults who impacted my life – including my mom and dad, David and Shirley Franklin, Charles Canady, Andy Young, James Terry and Harold Rogers, among others – were involved in every stage of my development as a swimmer. My entire life is under his umbrella, and everything that I accomplished is the direct result of his involvement in creating opportunities for me. It wasn’t an accident; it was by his design.”