By Bob Schaller//Correspondent | Monday, February 1, 2016
To honor Black History Month and celebrate diversity, each Monday in February we’ll feature a special 20 Question Extra. The first is Giles Smith, a National Teamer and All-American from the University of Arizona who now trains in Phoenix. Smith won gold in the 100 fly and silver as part of the medley relay at last year’s Pan Am Games, and gold at 2014 AT&T Winter Nationals in the 100 fly. He talks about what diversity means, and what direction the sport is headed, in this 20 Question Extra.
1. When and where did you begin swimming?Giles: I first started competitive swimming for the Baltimore City Swim Club, which was an inner-city program funded by Parks and Recreation. A majority of the swimmers were African American.
2. So was there diversity then?
Giles: A majority of the swimmers in that program were African American. And that was different of course. But it was also a big blessing, because it’s important for every child to learn to swim at a young age.
3. What was your perception of swimming as you started?
Giles: I remember being a little kid and not having anyone who I looked up to - in terms of who I could identify with. That was hard -- I am only going to be honest about that -- so I looked at athletes in other sports for my athletic role models. As far as a role model to guide me, I am blessed to have a great father as my role model. But for swimming, for me at that time, it was a little different.
4. Because of swimmers like you, the growing diversity in the sports base has another young man to look up to -- how does that make you feel?
Giles: It’s a good thing, definitely, that the sport is changing. I think so highly of Cullen Jones, getting to know him (at Pan Ams) and hanging out with him was incredible. He is as sincere of a guy as it gets, and he has achieved at the highest level. Same thing with Tony Ervin, who is true to being who he is, and is a champion. You had Maritza Correia and see what she did in her career, and not being afraid to be out front. Those are good leaders, which is important, and they are all different in their own ways, which is a diversity within the issue itself, and that is important because people connect or identify in different ways.
5. And you see that now, moving forward?
Giles: Oh yes, absolutely. Look at what we all saw, what everyone was so happy to talk about and celebrates, with Simone (Manuel), Lia (Neal) and Natalie (Hinds) going 1-2-3 and standing on that podium (for the 100 free) at the NCAA Championships. That’s as an amazing group of student-athletes as you will find anywhere, in any sport. Lia is already an Olympian from (2012). Natalie has constantly improved and reached her potential and beyond. Simone is one of the superstars of the sport, and so is Lia.
6 That’s pretty exciting isn’t it?
Giles: It is, because it’s continuing, not starting, stopping, waiting, and stopping again. The real superstar if he can stay on his stuff is Reece Whitley. Just to watch him and see what he does, how he carries himself, the relationship he has with his parents and his coach, how he’s able to articulate what he feels in interviews -- that’s what I find rewarding and exciting.
7. You do realize you are certainly in that group too, right?
Giles: Well, thank you, and if I’ve helped or inspired or been someone even one person can look to, that’s great. But I also know I am likely on the tail end side of my swim career, but it does make me happy to see it starting to change. The numbers are improving, and the numbers of elite swimmers is growing -- that’s progress. But the big thing is, it has to continue to be built upon. We can’t stop or celebrate anything yet because there’s still work to do. Though that we are headed in such a positive, powerful direction is inspiring and encouraging.
8. You make such eloquent points, where does it go now?
Giles: Where it started is where the growth continues -- we have to push swimming, not just competitive swimming, in the African-American communities. We still have inexcusably high drowning rates among African-American communities.
9. You speak with great conviction with that, don’t you?
Giles: I do, because it is what matters most -- all kids, any race, any area anywhere, have to learn to swim. Water safety is a basic life skill that is too often overlooked -- until it is too late. And then from that, the kids who enjoy it and see what it does for them can keep going. That’s when you start to have that Olympic dream and you start thinking about the Cullens, Maritzas, Simones, Tonys. So by fixing the problem (of drowing), we create another way to grow the sport among a more diverse community. That’s also how we continue to improve in a world where every country is getting better and more people are swimming, as a country. That’s where we should be able to get so many swimmers that we can’t talk about them in just one or two conversations.
10. But starting at entry point is the key, right?
Giles: Get them in for water safety -- get them ALL in so they have one less danger to their lives -- and you will be surprised how many want to stay with it, because it’s such a healthy lifestyle and it breeds good habits. That’s why so many swimmers are overachievers -- swimmers of any and all races, do great things, go to and finish college, end up leaders in the business world.
11. You mention some kids will stay with it, did you know from those early days in the Baltimore program you would stay with it?
Giles: Definitely (laughs) not! I thought about not staying with it, and it was over something you won’t believe; as silly as it sounds, the 8- or 7-year-old me didn’t get a trophy at the end of the season banquet, so I felt like I wasn’t appreciated. I told my Mom, “I want to quit swimming.” You have to understand my parents: They will support any decision I make provided it’s based on sound reasoning and makes sense. They encouraged -- but didn’t force me -- to stay with it, convinced me to give it a chance. I am so thankful for that. And it made me appreciate those trophies when I started winning them because no one gave me anything -- I had to earn it. That had a powerful effect on shaping me as a teenager. That’s what swimming can do for anyone.
12. Worked out pretty well -- good decision, right?
Giles: An unbelievable outcome. I have had too much fun being able to travel the world, and of course I never could have imagined that swimming could do that for me. And that’s another part of the sport kids get to see with Simone and Cullen and Lia and others -- “Hey, see where they are?” And they are in some country half a world away representing the United States. That’s a powerful message to African-Americans who are swimming. You can do this. Just look. It can be done, if you stay with it.
13. You really have liked how swimming has broadened your horizons, I guess literally and figuratively, don’t you?
Giles: I have had a lot of fun being able to travel the world. I am so blessed because of swimming. Swimming can change your life. As a 10 year old I wouldn’t have believed in 2016 I would be living in Phoenix, Arizona, after going to college in Tucson and competing with the best in the world and representing the University of Arizona, where swimming helped me earn a college degree in journalism. There are so many crazy, wonderful things that can happen if you stay with it.
14. My favorite picture of you is that smile after the relay at Pan Ams in your USA cap, what does that mean to you?
Giles: It’s a lot of fun, and more importantly, a huge honor representing the U.S. and being on the National Team. And for me now, being on the National Team for two years in a row is an even bigger honor. When you put that USA cap on your head and hear the crowd cheering, it’s something that means so much and something you will never forget. That’s one thing I really took away from Pan Ams, that sense of team, and then a sense of what it means to represent your country.
15. You see it on TV, or see your teammates at Arizona or wherever, but until it’s you, it’s not the same?
Giles: Yes, because you are representing more than your family, more than your name -- you are representing this country. I think I took that for granted until I had that on my cap and raced against other countries internationally. Not to sound arrogant or anything, but not a lot of people get to do it. On the other hand, I got to do it. The more kids who start swimming, the more kids who have that dream. And that’s where it starts.
16. Aside from almost leaving the sport as a child, was it tough to continue swimming after college?
Giles: Deciding to go professional and pursue the Olympic dreams, you are going to have ups and downs, because it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be hard. You find something inside yourself that pushes you forward, and keeps that dream alive. I just hope it ends well, but no matter what, pursuing it has done so much for me as a person.
17. We all enjoy interviewing you so much, where does the comfort speaking publicly and passionately come from?
Giles: To be honest it’s just like anything else -- you practice, you learn how to get better at it, and then you practice better. I was also a journalism major in college so that helped me understand how to convey my thoughts and feelings in the media.
18. Your parents must get a kick out of seeing their little son all grown up just being so sharp in his interviews?
Giles: They probably do, but it’s worth me mentioning they had a huge part, if I am expressing myself in any particular way that comes across well. Because they always encouraged me to express myself. I was a kid who never minded sharing his thoughts, feelings and concerns. My parents liked me being curious and seeking new information on things that interested me or I had questions about.
19. How else did your parents shape you in terms of dealing with people?
Giles: My parents would always tell me to be sincere and honest with people. And to listen to other people. Everyone you meet has such a unique story. I have enjoyed as much as anything hearing people from different backgrounds and their life stories. It’s just so cool when someone is from somewhere else to hear their views or how they dealt with the things that come in life. That’s what propelled this country forward for centuries to where we are today, and that will be important in determining where we are tomorrow. That’s one of the reasons I really like interacting with all the people I meet.
20. Who is someone else in the black community who has inspired you?Giles: Martin Luther King. I definitely think Dr. King has a strong message, yet he
started it with such a fundamental and universal concept of having a dream. It’s not that speech itself that is so moving, but the emotion he put into it and what he was really saying: It’s about young people from every background -- black, Hispanic, white, Asian, everywhere -- uniting, that we are all people on the same planet so we have to learn to live and work together. We are all looking for similar things as we chase our dreams, and everyone has a right to pursue that dream. So there’s no reason to separate or exclude a group of people because they are different.