Hailing from the country of Togo in West Africa, Adzo Kpossi may not have been on the receiving end of most of our cheers as we hoped for victory in the form of red, white, and blue. But the 13-year-old Olympic swimmer certainly deserves some credit for representing a contradiction to the stereotype of the relationship between black girls and water that unfortunately is somewhat more truth than myth: we don’t swim.
Adzo’s been recognized by all spectator’s of this year’s summer games as the youngest athlete to compete in London but The Guardian has also pointed out another unique aspect of the teen’s presence during this year’s competition, she is an African woman swimming in uncharted waters. When I think about the friend of mine who invited me to the beach via text a few weeks ago and then sent a follow-up message to say “of course we won’t be getting in the water,” I feel even more grateful for Adzo. When I think of how I suggested my friend actually swim instead of bake in the hot sun and how she told me she’d “leave that to the white folks,” I’m even more amazed at Adzo making the trek to the one pool in her part of the country at the Hotel Mercure in Sarakawa to train to compete on this level at her age. Let her tell it though, it’s not that big of a deal. ”I am used to it,” she told the press in London. “I went to the world championships in Shanghai last year, so this wasn’t my first time swimming in a big pool.”
I’m hoping that’s becoming more of a common statement among black women in the US—not the big pool part, just the idea of swimming. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as though taking a dive in a pool is at the top of the list of things one must know how to do like, say read or balance a check book. But in the same way we’re all excited about the possibilities Gabby Douglas represents for young black girls who don’t think minorities do back-flips on balance beams, Adzo Kpossi shows black kids there are more options out there and swimming is one of them, whether you want to do it competitively or at the public pool up the block.
Not knowing how to swim is almost like a generational curse some black folks have willingly been passing on to their children, proudly proclaiming, “girl naw I don’t know how to swim” when someone asks. It’s fine if hitting the backstroke on a hot day doesn’t tickle your fancy but with black children between the ages of 5 and 14 being three times more likely to drown than white children, the power to change that statistic clearly lies in our hands. If you’re going to allow your child to take a dip in the pool, it’s your responsibility as a parent to make sure they know what they’re doing and that you can protect or save them if need be.
I’m sure Adzo wasn’t thinking about all that when she first decided to take her jump into those uncharted waters, nor all the other black women like her who have been swimming and winning for years, but I definitely am. And I’m proud of what she represents as a black girl with drive and determination to make it to the pinnacle of global athleticism at 13 years old doing something you don’t see too many of us doing. We need more Adzo’s and Gabby’s in the world.
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