Twelve years ago, USA Swimming and the sorority Sigma Gamma Rho established the groundbreaking Swim 1922 partnership to increase swimming participation and lower drowning rates within the Black community.
After a tumultuous 2020, new National President of Sigma Gamma Rho, Rasheeda Liberty, is ready to
tackle the important work ahead of these two organizations.
“What I love about this partnership is that it’s so unique and it’s unique to Sigma Gamma Rho,” Liberty said. As a predominantly Black sorority founded on the then predominantly-white college campus of Butler University in 1922, Liberty notes that Sigma Gamma Rho has had a tradition of forging new paths in building diversity, and their partnership with USA Swimming is no exception.
“Sigma Gamma Rho is unique in that we tend to find ourselves in spaces that are not just unique not just to the African American culture, but are unique to just being in the U.S. We’re always the ones kind of on the forefront. USA Swimming has made it very easy for us to become great partners to them and for us to really tout this as our unique program.”
Though just seven months into her new post, Liberty has been a part of the sorority since 1994, which has also included working at several of the Swim 1922 events over the past few years. Liberty notes that she’s seen the growth in interest in the sport of swimming within the Black community and is excited that Sigma Gamma Rho has had an active part in that change.
“One of the things we use quite frequently is that swimming is the only sport that can save your life,” she said. “That’s been a mantra that we’ve been putting forward. I’ve heard through the studies from USA Swimming that the drowning numbers have decreased.” According to a 2017 USA Swimming Foundation study conducted by the University of Memphis and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 64% of African American children have little to no swimming ability – a 6% improvement since the start of the partnership.
“When I was little, you could go to the community pool. There was a community pool right down the street and you could walk up there, learn how to swim and that was done by the community. As funding and resources have dried up, now those pools are in big box organizations where you need to have a membership. A lot of the students who are most at risk don’t have the funds to get those swim lessons,” Liberty said. “For Sigma Gamma Rho and USA Swimming, I want to see us not only treat the problem but eradicate the problem. In order to eradicate the problem, you need to get these kids exposure early.”
Her ultimate vision is to one day partner on rebuilding pools and supporting more programs to grow even more diverse athletes who will one day give their skills and love of the sport back to their communities.
“I’ve seen that our Rhoers – our young, high school-aged students –are more interested in swimming and want to get into the pool whereas their parents – like my age group – we were still very scared of the water,” Liberty said. “But because we’re showing courage with this program, we’re actually helping encourage our youth affiliates and students. I think of my own son. My husband is a swimmer, my daughter is a swimmer - I’m not a swimmer. But because we had this partnership with USA Swimming, I enrolled my son in swim lessons because this is important. If I’m going to talk the talk, I’ve got to walk the walk.”
Understanding the importance of the generational impact when kids learn how to swim, Liberty has even promised her son’s swim instructor that she will get in the pool soon but has had issues doing so during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My son has become a stronger swimmer, which will one day feed another generation,” she said. “He looks up to Cullen Jones – he even wanted to show Cullen what he could do at one of our events. Getting that kind of encouragement from a Cullen Jones and then getting that reinforcement because of this partnership – I imagine that’s happening over and over again across our tens of thousands of members.
“Cullen Jones is inspiration,” she added. “All of our African American Olympians are inspirations, but the biggest influence in the household is the parents. Now we’re the parents – the female leaders in the home who are really pushing our students and our children. But because a lot of us are educators (more than 50% of the Sigma Gamma Rho membership), you now have women in the classroom who are emphasizing the importance of swimming or encouraging students to enroll in swim class or go to the natatorium with their class. We have inspiration in those aspects. We have educators, we have mothers, and yet again, we have the inspiration of the athletes.”