When North Carolina A&T State University ended its swim program nearly two years ago, it also shut the doors of the last all-black collegiate swim team in the country.
Now, the familiarity of the pool shows on the faces of the former athletes. For most, the sound of splashing and the smell of chlorine would indicate the beginning of summertime. But for swimmers like Emani Davies, the pool reminds her of the struggle to continue in her sport.
“Cold, cold water,” said Davies, 21, a former A&T athlete said. “And pushing ourselves to work out every day, six o’clock in the morning, three times a day.”
The 2016 season was NC A&T’s last year with a swim team. The Lady Bulldogs didn’t return this past school year for the 2017 swim season, and they likely won’t in the next few years. Reasons for the cut span all ends of the spectrum, from the lack of funding, to lack of interest from enough swimmers.
This has been extremely frustrating for A&T's swimmers, many of whom went into the program knowing about its imminent end.
Today, Howard University in Washington D.C. is the only HBCU left to have a swim team. In the 2015 season, there were a total of 163 black Division I swimmers- making up 2 percent of all Division I swimmers.
“I got to experience what it was like to be around a bunch of black swimmers and really, really great people that grew up with me and watched me grow up,” said Katie Hutchinson, the coach of the all-black swim team, The Aquablazers. Hutchinson didn’t swim on the team, but was still upset by the fact that school officials would disband such a historic team.
“I was mad,” she said. “[T]here’s only so many black swim teams, and black female swim teams as it is, especially at HBCUs. It’s a dying breed.”
For current and former athletes like Hutchinson, being a black swimmer was more than just about playing a sport. It was also about equality. Minority swimmers faced many challenges to just be seen on the same level as their white counterparts. In fact, team members say much of the joy of being on a black swim team comes from the community.
“I just love hearing all these people that love me and care about me tell me how much I’ve grown and continue to tell me how much I’m growing,” said Hutchinson.
Though the ending of the A&T swim team rippled through the black swimming community and team members are still trying to understand the situation, the A&T swimmers haven’t forgotten about their experience, nor have they lost their drive.
“Fight the good fight,” said former swimmer Justice Montgomery. “Because, there’s always a way to save something.”
In addition to empowering black swimmers in person, the Aggie swim team empowered them indirectly. The picture shown above of the swimmers went viral, generating a lot of press, and a lot of hope for the future diversity of swimming.
“I got messages, my mom got messages from moms,” Justice Montgomery said. In those messages were notes of encouragement to the swimmers, and details about how the picture lit a fire in their own daughters’ hearts.