U.S. team seeks pool of black stars in '96 Clinics, recruiting part of bigger effort

March 08, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- The 1992 U.S. Olympic swimming team was introduced Friday night at the Indiana University Natatorium as fireworks were launched from a diving platform and "Stars and Stripes Forever" blared over a loudspeaker.

There were athletes from Arkansas and New Hampshire, California and Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. They were lean and fresh-faced, most of them the sons and daughters of middle-class and upper-middle class families.

And with one exception -- 100-meter butterfly specialist Pablo Morales -- they were as white as the stars of the American flag.

But if the leaders of USA Swimming have their way, a very different team picture will emerge in time for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

The sport is in search of a black American star. It could be Chucky Cox or Melissa Wilborn or Jason Webb, competitors at these trials who failed to reach the finals. It could even be some teen-ager from Atlanta or Washington or Baltimore.

But promises are being made.

"When I was young, I was told that black kids can't swim," said Cox, a freshman at North Carolina State. "I never believed that. I wanted to show that if I could do it, other black kids could. Now, I want to be an Olympian."

The chances of the United States producing its first black swimming Olympian by 1996 still are slim. But in cities around the country, coaches and athletes are pursuing their own versions of an Olympic dream.

USA Swimming is trying to turn that dream into a reality by holding coaching clinics for city coaches in Colorado Springs, Colo., while actively recruiting minority swimmers. The program may seem small, but it is a first step to bridge the chasm between the suburban and city programs.

"If we can create a Pied Piper walking down the street, we can find other swimmers," said Bob Steele, program director of USA Swimming.

The goal is simple: increase swimming's base beyond the 170,000 competitors who are trying to climb a pyramid from recreational to collegiate to Olympic teams.

"Access is everything," said George Black, head of San Antonio's citywide aquatics program. "Whether you're poor or black or Hispanic, whether your father has lost a job."

Already, there are some bright spots in the bid to increase minority participation.

The Black History Month swim meet in Washington attracted 744 competitors last month. The top performer was Jinji Fraser, an 8-year-old from Edgewood.

In Atlanta, a 9-year-old citywide aquatics program receives $1.3 million in annual funding.

The Philadelphia Department of Recreation team is now recognized as one of the finest in the country, and is led by Webb, who was third in the 200 backstroke at the 1991 Olympic Festival.

"It would be nice to have an equilibrium of white and black swimmers at a meet like this," Webb said. "But I think it will take a long time. We're in the beginning stages of getting black swimmers involved."

Still, barriers to minority participation remain, ranging from transportation to daily workouts, to team fees to sheer ignorance.

"A lot of older blacks still don't think their children can or should swim," said Wilborn, a junior freestyler at Auburn. "But that fear of the unknown is being overcome."

The fear is being overcome in places like Philadelphia, where Jimmy Ellis is the coach of the city's team and is lobbying to have the city refurbish a 50-meter outdoor pool in Fairmont Park.

In Baltimore, the 52-member city-sponsored team trains daily at the Callow Hill aquatic center near Pimlico Race Course. The team has not yet spawned an Anita Nall, the world-record holder in the 200 breaststroke who lives in Towson. But the coaches are trying to put together a competitive, broad-based program.

"You have basketball courts on every corner in this city," said Portia Harris, the team manager. "You don't have indoor pools accessible to most youngsters. Most of our kids can't afford to go to private teams. We offer the same training for less money. . . . Swimming is very demanding and takes a lot of time and dedication."

In Atlanta, coaches and athletes are discovering that time and money can yield results. The program has not yet produced an Olympian, but a foundation is being created.

"I remember a time in Atlanta when an African American could not go swimming because of racial segregation," said Askia Bashier, head of the city's aquatics program. "But that changed when the city's population changed."

Now, Bashier and others are aiming at 1996.

"The African American athletes are a talent base we're missing in American swimming," he said. "It is a talent that we have to go out and tap. I will tell you this: We will have one of our swimmers on that Olympic team in Atlanta."

;/ That's a promise USA Swimming aims to keep.

Marylanders at the Olympic Trials


Swimmer.. .. .. ..Event.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..Time.. How fared

Mikey Flaherty,.. 200 individual medley.. .2:23.57.. 29th qual*

Towson.. .. .. .. 400 individual medley.. .4:58.29.. 10th qual*

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