Howard University is home to the only all-Black college swim team in the U.S., and on Sunday the Bison’s men’s swimming and diving team won the Northeast Conference Championship, beating the other teams “by a margin of 169 points.” This gave the HBCU team its first conference championship in 34 years.
Howard University is the last remaining HBCU with a swimming program and has seen an incredible amount of growth in the past decade, especially considering its coach Nicholas Askew advocated for the program being shut down in 2013 because of years of woeful underinvestment. “It was a disservice to the student athletes that came here with hopes and ambitions of developing and getting better and not having a consistent coach,” he said. “My answer to the equation was just cut it. Stop having a program that’s not being supported.”
This was all incredibly personal to Askew, a class of 2000 alum, who played tennis and swam for the university. In 2014, Askew took over the coaching position, completely transforming the program in his nine years as coach. He now boasts “Nobody in America can offer what we have in our pool…Where else are you going to see this?”
The NEC Conference Championship win certainly answers that question, and Bison swimmers “also walked away with multiple individual trophies: Senior Miles Simon won the NEC Outstanding Swimmer award; sophomore Jordan Walker won the NEC Outstanding Diver award; and Zuzu Nwaeze, of Columbia, Maryland, won Rookie of the Meet honors. The team also won NEC Coaching Staff of the Year honors.”
While Sunday’s win is being “described as historic and significant in a sport that is predominantly White,” much can be attributed to the prejudice Black people have long experienced in this country.
As Victoria Prizzia, organizer of “Pool: A Social History of Segregation,” an exhibition about the history of segregation and swimming in the U.S. says, “[t]he story of water is really a story of social justice.” In fact, as relayed by University of Montana Professor Jeff Wiltse, “During the 19th century, people of African ancestry were more accomplished swimmers than people of European ancestry. They were more likely to be swimmers and more likely to be better swimmers,” but, that all changed during the 20th century, when “[t]he vast majority of these pools were for whites only. And the Jim Crow pools that were accessible to black Americans tended to be small and much less desirable.”
Indeed, this legacy of discrimination within the sport of swimming has reverberated for years, and today, “African American athletes represent a very small percent of competitive swimmers in America.” Howard University has “one-third of the Black collegiate swimmers in America.” Senior swim team member at Howard Miles Simon says, “that number could be higher.”
Coach Askew echoes that sentiment, telling CNN, “Howard can’t be the only place, the only option because we only have so many roster spots. There are so many people we unfortunately can’t have at Howard to be able to swim…We are so glad to be able to see the success and so prayerful that it will be taken note of by the other HBCU’s to restart their program so we can no longer be the only HBCU.”