uring the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, the world watched as Simone Manuel became the first black woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming event. Now, through Razor Aquatics Swim Team, coach Jamal Roberts has a goal of getting black kids more involved in competitive swimming.
Like the kids he coaches today, Roberts got his start in swimming when he was about 11 years old while looking for an activity to do during the summer at his local recreation center.
“We had a team with black children on it, but we were the only ones everywhere that we went,” Roberts says. “I wanted to be able to keep that type of thing going, while at the same time trying to see if we could get children from the Detroit area swimming at a higher level. I wanted to really see how far we could get kids of color in swimming.”
Roberts started the Razor Aquatics Swim Team when he was just 21, while he was still competing on Wayne State University’s swim team.
“I got into coaching from the standpoint not that it was something that I saw myself doing – it was something that felt good to do,” Roberts says. “Just seeing the potential impact I could have working with children, especially in the inner city.”
The majority of the kids on the Razor team are between ages of 8 and 12, but he has swimmers as young as 5 and as old as 15. With a large number of swimmers coming from Detroit, Roberts says they also have kids that come in from other cities to be involved in this team – “from Southfield, Westland, Bloomfield Hills, Redford, Warren,” he says, “but the majority comes from Detroit.”
Roberts is more than the team’s coach. He also runs the operations, ensuring that the team has access to pool space, which can get expensive. Pool time for swimmers is offered as many as six days a week, and the frequency they come to practices is based on swim level.
“We do try to make as much practice time available as possible for those who do want to take their swimming skills to the highest level they can,” Roberts says. “I’ve had kids who could have been potentially great in the pool leave early because they didn’t know exactly what they could have accomplished or their parents didn’t know exactly what they could’ve accomplished.”
Roberts hopes that in the future, once there are more black people represented in competitive swimming and performing at a high level, it will change the way the black community feels about swimming.
“(Swimming) is overlooked a lot of times. This isn’t one of our main sports, but it could be and it should be,” Roberts says. “Popularizing the sport of swimming means it could also have an impact on getting more kids to want to gravitate towards the pool and learn how to swim in the first place.”