John Jay’s new pool will open up swimming opportunities for underrepresented populations.
By Andrea Dawn Clark
For many people, the upcoming opening of John Jay’s new pool is cause for celebration—as it should be. But, for a number of students of color, and grown-up “city kids” who never learned how to swim, diving into the deep end sounds incredibly daunting. At the heart of this swimming disparity lies a justice issue based on a history of segregated pools, lack of access to public pools and swimming instructors, poverty, racial stereotypes, and even cultural fears about water that can be linked back to slavery. The future opening of our new pool ought to be a joyous occasion for everyone in our community. And, being a school focused on creating a fairer, more just society, it presents an opportunity to bridge the swimming gap.
Confronting the Problem
In 2017, the U.S.A. Swimming Foundation published a study that found that 64 percent of black children, 45 percent of Latinx children, and 40 percent of white children had little to no swimming ability. The survey also revealed that socioeconomic factors played a huge role in the swim gap—79 percent of children in families with household incomes less than $50,000 had little to no swimming ability. And, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black children between the ages of five and 19 were five and a half times more likely to drown in a pool than white children.
The numbers are alarming; the problem is pervasive in African-American, Latinx, and low-income communities, and the reasons are rooted in history. Within families of color, long-held fears about swimming are passed down through generations as a sad legacy of slavery. Before the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Africans living on coastal shores were strong swimmers, but once enslavers saw swimming as a route to freedom, they went to great lengths to associate swimming with terror. During the 20th century, segregated pools were a potent symbol of Jim Crow’s discriminatory power, while very few public pools were built within communities of color. And, the cost of swimming lessons was, and still can be, prohibitive for low-income households. “For decades, racial stereotypes have compounded the swimming gap for communities of color. To truly combat the problem, we need to address the reasons—from racist misperceptions that people of color are less buoyant and therefore sink, to a lack of parental swimming ability and access, and even concerns about black hair care after swimming,” says Maritza McClendon, 2004 Olympic Silver Medalist in swimming and a Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority member.
In an effort to tackle the problem and increase swimming participation in communities of color, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority created the Swim 1922 program, named after the year the sorority was founded. The program has yielded 117 swim clinics across the country and over 2,500 swim lessons. This semester, Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority donated $25,000 to John Jay College for two fellowships. These fellowships will support swimming instruction and clinics for our neighboring community, while also offering supplemental swim instruction for John Jay students.
“Establishing the Swim 1922 Fellowship at John Jay College creates a partnership that will forever transform families and communities,” says Deborah Catchings-Smith, International President of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority. “Learning to swim is a gateway to many sports and leisure activities rarely pursued in African-American communities. We don’t see this gift as a donation, but as an investment in the progress and success of the students at John Jay College who then become advocates for water safety and swim lessons.”
— U.S.A. Swimming Foundation
Trailblazing a Pathway
Marian Wright Edelman, President Emerita of the Children’s Defense Fund, once famously said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Fortunately, our students can see Jenell Stott-Hodge ’15, John Jay’s new Aquatics Director and Head Swim Coach—a Bloodhound Swim Team alumna and an African-American woman. “My mother is from Anguilla and St. Kitts. She grew up with basic island girl swimming skills, and when she immigrated to the United States, she made sure that I had access to that life skill,” says Stott-Hodge.
Growing up in the Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, there were no pools available to Stott-Hodge within her community. Luckily, her family regularly went upstate during summer breaks and she could take advantage of the convenient swim lessons there. “The access was easier outside of the city, and the prices were cheaper,” she says. To continue her swim lessons during the fall, Stott-Hodge had to take two trains to Harlem. “But it was all worth it for me because I fell in love with the water and I immediately felt comfortable in the pool,” says Stott-Hodge. “Swimming also opened up job opportunities for me. I got my first job lifeguarding at a Children’s Aid Society center.”
In 2012, when Stott-Hodge enrolled at John Jay, she was excited to see that there was a pool. “The swim coach encouraged me to join the team, even though I didn’t have any competitive experience, and it just clicked for me,” she says. Throughout her three years on the team, Stott-Hodge was the only African-American team member. “When we would go to competitions, sometimes I could tell that people were surprised to see me there—especially with my big, curly afro—and often times they would underestimate me,” says Stott-Hodge. “It can make you feel out of place, but it wasn’t going to stop me. As a student, I joined the lifeguard pool staff. Then after graduation I started coaching and instructing. There was a whole aquatics world that I wanted to be a part of.”
Now, as Aquatics Director and Head Swim Coach, Stott-Hodge is on a mission: She’s focused on making basic swim-safety skills available to everyone in our community. “I would really like to offer workshops that help everyone feel comfortable being in the water. That means teaching basic skills, building up swimming techniques, and most importantly addressing trauma around water,” she says. “It’s one thing to be comfortable in the water, but it’s another thing to be entirely uncomfortable to the point of fear. I would absolutely like to take that fear element out of swimming.”
Stott-Hodge’s success story holds a lot of meaning for one person in particular, Director of Athletics, Recreation, and Intramurals, Carol Kashow, who saw Stott-Hodge’s potential from the start. “She came here as someone who knew how to swim but hadn’t swum competitively. We had a great coach at the time, and Jenell fell in love with the program,” says Kashow, detailing Stott-Hodge’s stellar climb from Assistant Coach and part-time Head Coach, to Aquatics Director and Head Swim Coach. “When we hired Jenell to lead our aquatics program, we were very excited not only to have a former John Jay student in the position, but also a young woman of color. She’s an excellent role model for our students and a leader for our community outreach.”
Building an Aquatic Dream
As anyone who’s ever embarked on “simple” home renovations can attest to, undertaking a large-scale project like renovating a college pool involves many hands and many details. But in the end it’s all worth it. “It’s been a complete renovation of the pool shell, all the materials on the outside, new filtration system, new controls, and new locker rooms,” says Anthony Bracco, John Jay’s Director of Facilities Management. “The construction started in January 2018, and because of an amazing partnership with DASNY [Dormitory Authority of the State of New York], CUNY [the City University of New York], and our contractor, Infinity, the project has gone very smoothly.”
Everything in the new pool feels modern and smart. The ceiling is made from sustainably harvested teak wood designed to accommodate new energy-efficient LED lighting. The new air-conditioning system lifts and wicks the air off the surface of the pool, eliminating a strong chlorine smell so often associated with pools. The new locker rooms are bright and airy with all new showers and lockers. And, the tiles on the walls have a subtle wave pattern to give the space a soothing atmosphere. According to Bracco, the pool will be a CUNY centerpiece for athletics, providing our community with a special place to swim. Happily, we’re all ready to dive in.
Photography: Denis Gostev