Black Swimmers: 8 Athletes Who Set the Pace for Future Black Generations


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72.8% of swimmers in the United States are white, and 8.9% are black or African American. One of the reasons why the number of black swimmers is significantly low is because of stereotypes. 

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That notwithstanding, there are a couple of black swimmers who fought for their place in swimming history and paved the way for the current generation. Scroll down to read more about them.  

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1. Enith Brigitha

Dutch swimmer Enith Brigitha is the first black female swimmer to win an Olympic medal. This came at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal. The reason why her victory was big is because of the lack of black swimmers at the time.

Enitha competed in the backstroke, butterfly, and freestyle events. During her career, she won a total of 21 titles representing the Dutch and won the Dutch Sportswomen of the Year twice.  

Post-retirement, Brigitha opened a swimming school to bring more people into the sport. For her contributions to the sport, Enitha was inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame in 2015.

2. Charles Chapman 

Another black swimmer who played a big role in swimming is Charles Chapman. He made a couple of records. In 1981, he crossed the English Channel in 12 hours and 30 minutes and became the first black swimmer to do so. To honor this achievement, he was given the Gold Medallion Award by the International Swimming Hall of Fame. 

He’s also the first black swimmer to go around Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, California. In 1988, he attained another record – he went through the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in 9 hours and 25 minutes.

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3. Charles Jackson French

Imagine being in the middle of a war and having to swim in an ocean-infested shark to save your fellow fighters. That’s the story of Charles Jackson’s French. His swimming abilities proved to be lifesaving for his fellow fighters during World War II. He put his life on the line by swimming in shark-infested waters, pulling 25 seamen wounded by the Japanese forces. 

At the time, Jackson French wasn’t known until the US Navy made his identity known. He became world-famous and was recognized as one of the most influential black swimmers. For his brave act, he was given a letter of recommendation, but many thought he deserved better. 

4. Natalie Hinds

She’s one of the most vocal black swimmers. She achieved so much during her career. Some of her achievements include:

  • 20-time All-American Sprinter, University of Florida
  • SEC Freshman of the Year, University of Florida
  • 2019 LEAD Sports Summit Mentor
  • Part of first ever 1-2-3 all-African-American finish in a single event at an NCAA Championship
  • LEAD Sports Summit Scholarship Named in her Honor
  • Multi-time US Olympic Trials Qualifier
  • Member of the inaugural International Swim League (ISL), Cali Condors

Hinds is an Olympic medalist. She clinched bronze during the postponed 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. She’s talked about the lack of black representation in the sport and is leading talks about racial equality.

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5. Pauline Jackson

Pauline Jackson is one of the earliest black swimmers. In 1927, she swam in one of the most challenging channels, The Catalina Channel, an adventure that showed her swimming prowess. 

She also took part in the Canadian National Exhibition. Her participation allowed Walter Johnson to compete in the exhibition in 1931.  

6. Reece Whitley

Sports Illustrated Kids Reece Whitley SportsKid of the Year Reece Whitley specializes in breaststroke. In 2015, he won a silver medal in the FINA World Junior Swimming Championships in Singapore. He’s on the swimming team for the University of California and has already been voted the Pac-12 Swimming Freshman of the Year. 

He also received the College Swimming and Diving Coaches Association of America (CSCAA) All-America award. Reece the Whitley is aware of the lack of representation of black swimmers at the elite level and hopes to create more openings for swimmers of color. 

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7. Cullen Jones

Is there a record that Cullen Jones hasn’t broken? In 2008, he set a record for the 50-meter freestyle after he clocked 21.59. This made him the first black male swimmer to hold a swimming world record. 

In 2009, he set the American record for a 50-meter freestyle after he completed the US National Championship in a time of 21.40. Cullen was part of the 2008 Olympic team that set a world record 3.08.24. 

Cullen is an advocate of swimming education, particularly after his one experience. When he was young, he nearly drowned, making him want to learn how to swim. Now, that’s what he does. 

“You’ve got a whole culture to believe that swimming isn’t something they do…We have changed that stereotype.”

8. Maritza Correia

Maritza Correia is a woman of many firsts. She was the first black swimmer to feature for the United States team. She was also the first black American to set an American and world swimming record. 

At 18, Maritza was the freestyle U.S. national champion in the 50 meters. In the 2002 National Championships and 2003 World Championships, she won gold. In the 2004 Olympic Games, Maritza collected a silver medal with Team USA in the 4×100 meter freestyle relay. 

These are the black swimmers who’ve carved a path for black swimmers. If you want to learn more about the history between swimming and the black community, check out this book on Amazon.

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