I am often referred to as “The Black Swimmer.”
While I one day hope to be known as an “Olympic champion” swimmer without that qualifier, I know that I can’t ignore the significance of being an African-American female in the sport.
When I’m referred to as an African-American Olympic swimmer, it makes it seem as though it’s not supposed to be done, which isn’t true. I work just as hard as anybody, I love the sport and I want to win just like everybody else.
I played basketball, volleyball, soccer and danced growing up, but I just had more fun when I was swimming. There were times when it was a challenge to fit in and it wasn’t always easy not having many swimmers who looked like me. But I enjoyed it and wanted to keep swimming and get stronger and faster.
As I kept going in the sport, I asked my mom why there weren’t more African-American swimmers, so we did our research, learning about Olympic medalists Maritza McClendon and Cullen Jones, and Sabir Muhammad and Byron Davis. I looked up to Maritza and Cullen because they shared a common experience and they helped me through some of those hardships with being the ‘only one.’
Discovering other Black swimmers inspired me to keep going on my journey. I believed that I, too, could win no matter what some stereotypes might be. So I worked hard every day to fulfill my goals and dreams, and the results have followed.
When I won gold in Rio, I cried tears of joy because of all the time I spent in the water preparing for the Olympics and also for the athletes who came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport.
I’ve seen the statistic from a USA Swimming Foundation study that states that 64 percent of African-American children don’t know how to swim. This is alarming and something we can change. There are more African-American swimmers than when I first started in the sport and if we want more diversity in the water, it starts with learning how to swim.
Swim lessons reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent, so it’s literally a life-saving skill. That’s the first step. If cost is an obstacle, there are opportunities like the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative that provide low cost or free lessons to children throughout the country.
I want to encourage children and their parents to break down barriers in their communities and not be afraid to be the first to try something positive, such as swimming. The bonds I’ve built with my coaches and teammates over the years transcend race and words cannot describe the experiences I’ve shared with them.
Hopefully, there will be a day where there are more of us — not just ‘Simone, the Black swimmer.’ Knowing that I am a part of something much larger than myself, winning an Olympic gold medal in swimming is for the people who will follow me and find the same love and drive for the sport.
Swimming is a rewarding sport that should never be overlooked because of existing stereotypes based on skin color. My hope is that I’m an inspiration to get out there and try swimming.
You never know, you might be pretty good at it!