What to Know
Sigma Gamma Rho teamed up with USA Swimming to start Swim1922, giving swimming and water safety lessons to children in minority groups.
Black children 5 to 19 years old are 5.5 times more likely to drown in swimming pools than white children of the same age, according the CDC
Alia Atkinson, a Sigma Gamma Rho member and Olympic swimmer, has advocated for the issue.
A historically black sorority is working with USA Swimming to make sure children, particularly those from minority groups, know how to swim.
Seventy percent of black children and 60 percent of Hispanic children have little or no swimming ability, compared to 40 percent of white children, a study by the University of Memphis for the USA Swimming Foundation says.
To help fight that statistic, Sigma Gamma Rho teamed up with USA Swimming in 2012 to start Swim1922, a project that teaches swimming and water safety to children.
“We knew we needed to get involved,” said Deborah Catchings-Smith, the national president of Sigma Gamma Rho. “That was really an awakening for our organization.”
Since it began, Swim1922 has hosted clinics throughout the country to help people of all ages get comfortable in the water.
The sorority reasoned that with more mothers and grandmothers swimming, they could "get more kids in the water."
"It starts with the parents,” said Secenario Jones, the Swim1922 partnership liason for Sigma Gamma Rho.
Jones said she has watched women who previously had bad experiences gradually overcome their fears and learn to swim during clinics. She said she has enjoyed getting to “see that progression, and know you are changing lives.”
Catchings-Smith said it is particularly rewarding to teach senior citizens to swim -- something they have always wanted to learn but haven’t had time to do.
“It is so rewarding because you can actually be a part of their history and their journey,” Catchings-Smith said.
After learning to swim, Catchings-Smith said the seniors “(make) a difference in their own communities and their own families by encouraging others to join in.”
Since the project’s beginning, Jones said she has watched the program evolve to focus on a local scale instead of a national one. The changes have proven effective, and USA Swimming announced in February, 2015, it would extend the program for several years.
Jones said local branches have "come up with their own way of implementing this program.”
In Washington, D.C., that came into the form of a free clinic in April where Swim1922 worked with Howard University’s swim team -- the only division one swimming program at a historically black college or university -- to give children a in-water swimming lesson and a water safety talk.
The sorority is working to plan another clinic between September 15 and 19 to align with the Congressional Black Caucus. Jones said the sorority is still working to figure out timing for the event.
USA Swimming has its own organization, Make a Splash, that works to make swimming more accessible. Along with the Swim1922 clinics, you can search online for a Make a Splash partner in your area for free swim lessons.
Jones said the clinics have given young people access to swimming that they wouldn’t have had otherwise. And with that access, she said more people are starting to love the sport.
“We started creating fans of the sport of swimming,” she said.
Maritza McClendon, Olympic silver medalist and the first black woman to swim for Team USA, has become an ambassador for Swim1922, Catchings-Smith said. She said McClendon, a Sigma Gamma Rho member, has traveled the country to teach at swim clinics and share how she started swimming -- as medical therapy for scoliosis. Now, she’s an Olympian.
“It was not intentional,” Catchings-Smith said.
Young swimmers can also find inspiration in Alia Atkinson -- a Sigma Gamma Rho member who broke the world record for the 100m breaststroke in 2014 and competed for Jamaica in the Rio Olympics. Jones said Atkinson spoke at two Swim1922 conferences in the Baltimore area on how she started swimming, why it is an important skill to learn and what opportunities swimming gave her.
But the program has a wider impact than the potential to teach “the next Alia or Simone,” Jones said.
“It’s a life skill, you know,” Jones said. “It can save your life.”