By Jeff Commings//Contributor | Thursday, February 16, 2017
As a young swimmer on a small club in Sugar Land, Texas, Natalie Hinds was the only one on the team with dark skin. It wasn’t much different when she went to swim meets, either.
When she arrived on campus at the University of Florida to start her freshman year, Hinds became more aware of the scarcity of black swimmers around her. She felt something had to be done to create change, which she was able to do at her final NCAA championships.By placing third in the 100-yard freestyle at the 2015 championships behind Simone Manuel and Lia Neal, she was part of the first 1-2-3 finish by African-American swimmers at a major championship meet. In the days following that historic race, Hinds became aware of the impact it had on the swimming community.
“To me, the main thing at the time was getting third and setting a school record,” Hinds said. “So, the (historical aspect of the 100 free race) didn’t cross my mind at all. The next day, my phone was frozen because I had so many text messages and social media messages from people telling me how inspiring that race was for them.”
Hinds could have parlayed her moment in history with appearances at clinics and numerous speaking engagements. But after disappointing finishes at the 2016 Olympic Trials, Hinds retired from competitive swimming and wanted nothing to do with the sport. A chance to help out at a swim clinic in Washington, D.C., with Olympic medalist Maritza Correia last September changed her thinking.
“That clinic did change my life in seeing six-year-olds have fun in the water,” Hinds said. “It made me miss the sport. Being able to share my story, which I think is unique, was one of the most important things I did that weekend. That is what started me wanting to give back more to the sport.”
This weekend, Hinds will be honored at the 30th annual Black History Invitational Swim Meet in Washington, D.C., where she will join a prestigious list of past award recipients such as Correia, Cullen Jones, Lia Neal, Jim Ellis and Byron Davis.
“Natalie has not only made raising awareness of diversity in swimming a priority of hers, she will forever be a part of history as a member of the trio of ladies to finish 1-2-3 in the 2015 NCAA championship 100 free finals,” said Black History Invitational organizer Rob Green. “That feat exemplifies just how rapidly the complexion of the sport is changing, and we wanted to acknowledge Natalie for her role in blazing a trail for thousands of young African-American swimmers nationwide.”
In addition to her work with young swimmers, Hinds is forging a career path as a restaurant event planner while still living in Gainesville. Though she hasn’t swum much since Olympic Trials, Hinds said she still stays in good shape. Because of that, she said people tend to think she was a collegiate basketball player or was a part of Florida’s track and field team.
“When I tell them that I swam, people don’t expect that,” she said. “I feel a bit proud of that (reaction) when they have that surprise on their faces. I want other kids to experience that, and I am glad there are clinics out there that expose kids to the fact that you can swim.”
Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority is partnering with USA Swimming to put on such clinics across the country in their joint effort to introduce the sport to minority children and adults. Hinds was named an honorary member of the sorority and will help conduct a “Swim 1922” clinic this weekend in conjunction with the Black History Invitational Swim Meet.
Hinds is excited about the recognition she’s getting this weekend, and said the trip to Washington, D.C., will be a continuation of her mission to offer tangible inspiration to minority swimmers in the United States.
“Growing up, I didn’t have live inspiration,” Hinds said. “I could only watch it on TV. I had the video of Cullen Jones at Pan Pacs when he won the 50 free (in 2006) and I would watch that video over and over. If I can give these kids some personal inspiration, I think that is the most important thing.”