What Was That About Black People Not Being Able to Swim?

The Shadow League
Lia Neal; Simone Manuel; Natalie Hinds
MIRA/AFP/Getty Images; Ian MacNicol/Getty Images; Twitter

It was an unprecedented event for NCAA swimming. It was as symbolic as it was historic in that it provided a revealing reality concerning the sport of swimming and marked the official introduction of African-American women as a force in an arena that has failed to attract or embrace them in the past.

It was not too long ago—in 1987—that the legendary racist rant by ex-Dodger Vice President Al Campanis on Nightline, then hosted by Ted Koppel, harshly and bluntly expressed what a large portion of America still felt about African Americans. Campanis said that blacks lacked the “necessities” to be managers or executives, pitchers and quarterbacks.


His most infamous quote came in defense of his absurd assertions. Campanis asked Koppel, “Why are black people not good swimmers?” Then Campanis answered his own question: “Because they don’t have the buoyancy.”

A flabbergasted and obviously agitated Koppel responded, “I’d say that it’s because they don’t have access to the country clubs and the pools.”

It wasn’t just that the remarks were foul, racially charged and outdated. Those comments by Campanis—a respected and powerful baseball executive who once roomed with Jackie Robinson when they were members of the barrier-breaking Dodgers organization—sparked a storm of criticism, particularly from the black community, and put Major League Baseball’s hiring practices under intense scrutiny.

Campanis was fired shortly afterward. Black swimmers have since proved their “buoyancy” and have more access to the country clubs and swimming pools than ever. 


Similar to sports such as golf, ice-skating and gymnastics, swimming has long been considered by primitive minds to be an athletic endeavor that is an “unnatural” fit for African Americans. But with three African-American swimmers sweeping the podium in the 100-yard freestyle at the Women’s Division I NCAA Championship this past weekend (a feat recognized by the national governing body of swimming in the U.S. with a celebratory tweet), it’s clear that a swimming “blackout” is upon us.

Freshman phenom Simone Manuel of Stanford set an NCAA, American, U.S. Open, championship and pool record when she clocked a time of 46.09 in the women’s 100-yard freestyle.


Manuel’s Stanford teammate Lia Neal came in second with a time of 47.13.

Neal is no stranger to star-studded success. Raised in the Fort Greene section of New York City’s Brooklyn borough by her parents, Rome and Siu Neal—who are of African-American and Chinese-American descent respectively—she is already a pioneer for black women in swimming: Neal won a bronze medal in the 4x100 free relay at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.


Her being part of this landmark moment in NCAA swimming makes total sense.

The University of Florida’s Natalie Hinds swam a time of 47.24. Hinds reset her own school record in the event during competition.


Read more at the Shadow League.

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