North Carolina A&T’s Black Women’s Swim Team That Went Viral For Defying Stereotypes Is Losing Their Program
I learned about the North Carolina A&T swim team this past weekend.
A colleague shared a story about them on her Facebook page, and I clicked, taking me to ForHarriet. Little did I know, quite a few people had already circulated the images, shot by photographer Kevin L. Dorsey, that would go viral of the ladies’ creative team pictures. The women were celebrated by many, primarily for the fact that these young college students, these beautiful Black women, defy the stereotypes and statistics about Black people not being able to swim, as well as stereotypes that Black women won’t mess with the water because of their hair concerns.
Well, psych your mind and make your booty shine as they used to say because these women are doing just that and a whole lot more.
As I grew more and more excited about the ladies and their story, after doing some digging, I was sad to see stories out of North Carolina about their program being on the rocks. A team that exemplifies such a positive image and message has literally been recommended for ousting time and time again. And according to head coach Shawn Hendrix, who has been with North Carolina A&T as the women’s swimming coach for 17 years, their 2015-2016 season really will, unfortunately, be their last. They will continue to swim until the end of February.
“We actually announced three years ago that the program was going to be discontinued,” Hendrix said. “So this is the actual last year. They’re replacing our sport with golf.”
According to Hendrix, since she’s been at the school, each athletic director that has come and gone has wanted to replace swimming. She’s fought long and hard, as have members of the swim team, but things didn’t turn out as they hoped.
“When the new AD came in, after his first year, he decided to bring golf in and let swimming go,” Hendrix said. “That year, I had recruited like nine swimmers. So I said to him, it’s going to take you a while to A) get a coach, B) have that coach recruit if you’re going to be competitive, so why not allow us to finish out these three years? So we were able to finish with a high graduation rate with the sport. These kids have committed to us, and they don’t have to transfer because they were here on scholarship. So he agreed to it, and he kept his word. That’s kind of how it went.”
And no it’s not a funding issue as one might assume. According to Hendrix, it’s just the nature of the game in college sports these days, especially at HBCUs.
“It just happens in athletics,” Hendrix said. “No sport is really safe anymore. We have universities that have lost football. It’s an administrative decision, the powers of above, what they decide, what direction they want to move athletics into, whatever they think fits. Howard will be the last HBCU women’s swim team, and we actually swim against them on February 6, so that’s going to be a big meet.”
To be clear, Earl Hilton III, director of athletics at North Carolina A&T said in a statement in 2013 that the move was based on the fact that the school’s sport’s conference doesn’t sponsor swimming.
“Our swimming program has produced great athletes and outstanding citizens in our society,” Hilton said. “Many of our swimmers have been tremendously successful after graduating from North Carolina A&T. We must, however, move our department to where every athlete has the opportunity to compete for a conference and NCAA title. I don’t see a scenario where the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference will sponsor swimming in the foreseeable future.”
So men and women’s golf it is.
According to Hendrix, after initially fighting to get the program to stay through petitions, news stories and more, the ladies, who will continue to have their scholarships honored, are actually handling the dissolution of their program well.
“They did everything they could the three years we had to be active and they tried to find support to keep it,” Hendrix said. “But what I’m most proud of is them accepting that, okay, this is it, but not having the ‘poor me’ syndrome and just really working hard and being positive. They call themselves ‘The Last of a Dying Breed,’ I call them my ‘Legacy Ladies [laughs].’ They’re holding their heads high. They’re going out determined to break school records, so it’s been a lot of fun to coach them.”
So despite the not-so-happy ending to the story of a team who just had everyone talking online, Hendrix says she’s proud of her girls and has even learned a lot from them. As can others.
“There’s the saying, I think it’s ‘God grant me the wisdom to know the things that I can change and the wisdom to know the things that I can’t.’ That rolls off of the lips really nice and sounds good, but to apply it? That’s a different story. And I think these ladies were really good at that,” Hendrix said. “In a very positive way, they really fought for the program. But when they realized that we’d done all we can, they didn’t just give up. They accepted it, but they accepted it with the pride that if this is it, they wouldn’t have one single regret. And as a coach, that is a pleasure.
She continued, “For them to have the tenacity that they’ve had, I’ve learned some things from them. I’ve been here 17 years and I’ve fought every year to keep the swim program. Every AD came in and told me they were taking it. So, I think they kind of helped me with that as well, to kind of accept that this is it. And if this is it, the best thing you can do is leave them with a powerful message of, ‘You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.'”