(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
Growing up in Haiti, Glory Hyppolite spent a lot of time outdoors, playing soccer and other games, but swimming wasn’t a big part of his life. He would sometimes float in the Caribbean Sea with friends on inner tubes, but he never had swimming lessons.
Hyppolite, 56, said in a recent interview that very few people own swimming pools in Haiti and lessons simply aren’t expected, aren’t part of the culture.
“In the Caribbean as a kid, no one teaches you to swim,” said Hyppolite, who lives in Milton. “I go to the sea, but I never really swim.”
It’s a cycle Hyppolite decided to break a couple of years ago, when his son Dominik, now 12, began receiving frequent invitations to pool parties. Each time Hyppolite had to tell the parents hosting the party that Dominik didn’t know how to swim.
“You become like a broken record,” Hyppolite said.
He decided to send Dominik to a swimming class at the Hyde Park YMCA. After some time passed and he saw how much his son enjoyed being in the water, Hyppolite decided to try it out himself. He began his own lessons in April.
This father and son are among many people of color taking on a longstanding cultural disparity that gained new national attention last summer thanks to Olympic swimmer Cullen Jones.
Jones, 28, won a gold medal in 2008, one gold and two silver medals this year, and was the first African-American man to hold a world swimming record. But when he was 5 years old, Jones was just a little boy who didn’t know how to swim, and he nearly drowned at a water park.
Since 2008, Jones has worked to encourage African-American and Hispanic youth to learn to swim through the USA Swimming Foundation’s national “Make a Splash” campaign. Jones has traveled around the country speaking directly to young people and has appeared in national publications and television outlets as part of the effort.
Data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that African-American children ages 5 – 14 are three times more likely to die in a drowning accident than white children the same age and that African Americans of all ages are more likely to drown. And a 2010 study by the University of Memphis and the USA Swimming Foundation showed that 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children do not know how to swim, compared to 42 percent of white children.
Locally, it’s an issue the Hyde Park YMCA is addressing through its swimming programs for youth and adults.
Swim instructor Grace Doherty, 38, said that often people who grew up in the Caribbean, like Hyppolite, have had traumatic experiences in the water and don’t feel comfortable getting in. Students often tell her stories that begin “Somebody pushed me in [the water] when I was 13.”
Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not just family members or friends who create traumatic memories.
“A lot of times, it’s instructors who have thrown them in or made them go in the deep end before they were ready,” Doherty said.
To combat their fears, Doherty eases students in so gradually, she said, that they don’t even realize how far they’re going until they get there.
Each student comes into the class with a different goal. For some in the beginner class, Doherty said, just becoming comfortable in the water is enough. And while classes range in size from three students to 15, she tries to customize her teaching to fit each person’s needs, breaking larger classes into groups on the basis of student ability and the fears they must overcome.
After 23 years teaching swimming lessons, Doherty said, there’s nothing a student can say or do that she hasn’t already seen. And in all that time, she has only had one student who was simply unwilling to learn.
Doherty said that as a person of color herself, she thinks it is important to help more people of color learn to swim.
“I’ve taught almost every black person in Boston how to swim,” she joked.
Hyppolite said he has noticed the racial disparity in looking at his son’s friends.
“Most of the white kids know how to swim. … It’s a custom,” he said of swimming lessons, “like getting a driver’s license at 16 or preschool at 3. … Seldom do you see a black person do that.”
But Hyppolite thinks that may be changing. He’s happy to see a large number of African-American children taking lessons at the Y now, and he said Dominik has continued his lessons and is doing well.
Hyppolite has had trouble fitting his own lessons into his busy schedule, but he comes when he can. He’s realized that it will not be as easy as he thought before he began, when he expected to become a strong swimmer within a couple of weeks. Still, he’s proud of the progress he’s made.
“I’m very happy because I can see if I jump in the water now, I will not die quickly,” he joked.
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)