Broadening the circle of competitive swimming

Two African-American swimmers talk about their love for the sport

Aaron Ramsey wears a swim cap as he poses for a portrait near a pool.
Aaron Ramsey, 16, swims on the varsity team at Como Park High School. He wants to inspire others who may have anxieties associated with water.
Iyana Esters | The Water Main

In this Land of 10,000 Lakes, there’s no shortage of kids jumping into the water this summer.

But the ability to swim is anything but a universal skill, and for black children, the risk of drowning is more likely than for white children. About 64 percent of African-American children cannot swim or swim poorly, compared with 40 percent for white children, according to one national study.

The reasons for swimming disparities across the United States are vast. A historical lack of access to pools and swim instruction, institutional discrimination and inherited fears of the water have all contributed to the gap.

Yet there are plenty of swimmers of color who are shattering that narrative. As part of MPR’s Water Month, we’re featuring the stories of people of color who’ve embraced the sport, making it more inclusive and passing their love of swimming onto others in their communities.

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Justin Mann, 67

When Justin Mann was in high school, he needed to excel in a sport that would get him a ticket to college. He set his sights on Tennessee State University. Swimming was his favorite sport — even though one of his first experiences in the water almost led to him drowning.

Mann grew up in the historic Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul, then home to the heart of the city’s black community, and attended Central High School. He’d go to community pools every now and then, but the high school itself did not have a pool for him to practice. So, he’d get up early in the morning to visit another school in a different neighborhood, before school to get some extra laps in.

Raaj and Justin Mann pose for a portrait in the swimming pool.
St. Paul native and teacher Justin Mann (right) with his son Raaj Mann (left) at Como High School on June 4.
Iyana Esters | The Water Main

Despite the challenging access, Mann was determined to keep swimming. In college, he received a scholarship after the first quarter. Now he teaches at Como Park High School, in the same building where he attended junior high, and swims regularly with his 30-year-old son Raaj, who has Down syndrome.

Justin Mann, St. Paul native and assistant swim coach at Como Park High School
by MPR News

Mann is also an assistant swim coach. He sees an opportunity to help young students trust their abilities.

“It gives you discipline, teaches you how to breathe, how to relax, how to overcome your fears, how to be confident and competitive,” he said.

Aaron Ramsey, 16

Aaron Ramsey of St. Paul is the only black swimmer on the varsity team at Como Park High School. At first he was nervous about trying the sport. He received encouragement from his mother, Syreeta Seve, even though she never learned to swim.

The best support Seve felt she could give Aaron and his brother was signing them up for swim lessons after they moved to Minnesota and “not projecting my fears on them,” she said. “In addition to not knowing how to swim, I also was afraid to swim.”

Aaron Ramsey, competitive swimmer
by MPR News

Aaron quickly excelled on his high school swim team, making varsity his first year. He wants to inspire others who may have anxieties associated with water. It’s a lot of fun, he said, and he feels at home in the water.

“I was kind of scared, I didn’t know what’s going to happen, I didn't know what to wear and I was afraid to ask anyone at a new high school,” he said. “I was moved over into a fast lane in my first year … and I just realized my gift and talent and I was, like, ‘You know what, I want to stick with it, I want to keep on swimming. It’s fun.’”