The sound of water splashes as the swimmers approach the finish line. Stroke by stroke, breath by breath, they race down the pool to close out the 100-meter butterfly. Ben Davis, coach for the Memphis Tigers Swimming Club, yelled out the times for each swimmer.
“One-eleven-two…one-fifteen-five…one-sixteen-seven,” he shouted across the pool.
Each swimmer looked up to see who won.
First place went to 16-year-old Kiara Norris, whom Davis said is one of the best swimmers on the team. Norris, who started swimming at 4, stands out in the pool—not only because of her times, but because she is one of the few African American swimmers on the Memphis Tigers Swimming Club.
“I don’t know what I’d do without swimming,” she said. “It feels good to compete and be successful at it.”
Norris is a representative of a national trend in sports that have historically been less diverse. In women’s athletics, according to Member Club News, participation in swimming, gymnastics and volleyball have increased. The diversity participation rate for gymnastics, according to a study by USA Gymnastics, increased from 6.61 percent to 12.3 percent since 2007. Along with the increase in participation. African American gymnasts have reached elite status on the international stage.
During the 2016 Summer Olympics, African Americans athletes won medals in swimming, gymnastics and volleyball. At the 2014 Summer Olympics, Gabby Douglas, a member of the USA national gymnastics team, was the first African American female to win in the individual all-around event.
Davis said because of people like her, Simone Biles, only the second African American to win a gymnastics individual gold medal, and Simone Manuel, the first African American woman to win a swimming gold medal, it has become more socially accepted for minorities to participate and succeed in such sports. For young women like Norris, it has become an inspiration.
“Seeing two black girls up front and center at the Olympics was very inspiring,” Norris said. “It made me want to work harder so I can at least get closer to that level.”
Norris began swimming at a young age with her younger brother. Her father, Anthony Norris, decided to enroll the two in swim class as a safety precaution.
Norris’ concerns are not unique. Nearly 70 percent of African American children and 58 percent of Hispanic children in Memphis, according to a recent study by researchers at U of M, have a low ability or no ability to swim.
Warren Turn, 15, started swimming for the same reason. His parents enrolled him in swim classes to keep him safe around the water.
“My parents didn’t want me to fit the stereo type of a black person not knowing how to swim,” Turner said. “They didn’t want me to drown.”
Norris and Turner are two out of six African American members on the swim team. Davis said this team is the most diverse team he has seen in swimming that is not on the national level. Because of that, Davis questions why the diversity rate for swimming is as small as it is. He realized that the problem is many do not have access to pools and equipment.
Black children aren’t participating in sports out of a lack of interest, according to a recent study by Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls , they aren’t participating because they don’t have access in their schools and communities.
Because some African American families attend schools with large minority populations, there is not much access to play the sport, according to the study Girls Finishing Last. That is why most volleyball players play club to help them grow in skill and training.
The report also states that girls of color are not receiving equal opportunities as males to play school sports.
For every 100 female students, there are 51 spots on teams, and for every 100 male students, there are 62 spots on teams. But at the typical predominately minority high school, girls have only 67 percent of the opportunities to play sports that boys have. For every 100 female students there are just 20 spots on sports teams, and for every 100 male students, there are 30 spots available.
Like many youth activities, sports cost money. Girls Finish Last shows that 33 percent of African American girls, compared with 18 percent of white girls, said they never participated in sports because their families could not afford to pay for associated costs of participation.
“It gets pretty expensive [swimming],” Norris said. “But my mom and dad both work and make sacrifices for me and I appreciate it very much.”
Anthony Norris said that pointing out the minorities is fairly easy, and he has noticed that many African Americans in the sport have been successful.
“Their (his children) early success made me realize that more children from our background need to be exposed to this sport,” Anthony Norris said. “I don’t really see it (being a minority) as obstacles, I see it as opportunity to educate and enlighten the people around us.”
Along with the expenses of swimming, volleyball is another sport that requires a large amount of money to play.
Playing volleyball outside of high school on a club team can cost between $1,000 and $3,000. According to a study, Strength and Power for Volleyball, most players who play on the club level are guaranteed to play in college. So it is almost necessary to play club in order to play beyond high school.
For women like Tai Bierra, a freshman on the University of Memphis volleyball team, expenses sometimes hindered her from playing volleyball outside of school on club teams because her mom has four other children.
“Sometimes my mom wouldn’t have money to send me to away tournaments that we would have during club season,” Bierra said. “I would have to either miss the tournament or try to ride with another family and share a hotel room with them.”
Bierra said that even though the financial part of the sport was hard, she is thankful that she was still able to play.
For women inspired to play volleyball, they would have to play outside of their school to receive the proper exposure for college.
Diversity in sports in the United States continues to increase each year for both men and women. Women of color have been fighting for equality since the ratification of the 19th Amendment and Title IX.
Fighting for equal rights, Title IX was proposed to help women have equal treatment has men. It states that no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.
However, the Title IX law is not highly enforced in high school sports, which results in the separation between gender and positions available for sports depending on whether or not he or she attends a heavily white school or a heavily minority school. Other times it results in what or whom you have grown up around.
Davis said It is not just about motivating the minorities, but it is about treating them just like everyone else because they are all in it together.