‘I don’t know how to swim’: Chief diversity officer for Novant Health faces fear & enrolls in swimming lessons

Program focuses on teaching African Americans to swim

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A majority of Black children in America don’t know how to swim, which can have deadly consequences. A program called NSEA Swim at Wilmington’s Northside Swimming Pool is changing that one lap at a time.

According to the CDC, Black children drown at a rate almost three times higher than their Caucasian peers.

A report from USA Swimming, the National Governing Body for the sport of swimming in the United States, found 70 percent of African Americans were unable to swim.

Tanya Blackmon, Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Officer for Novant Health, never learned how to swim as a child because of an intense fear of water.

“I didn’t start taking showers until I entered high school because of the fear of water getting in my face,” Blackmon says. “I took baths so I did bathe, but I took baths until I started high school because of that fear.”

By early summer, Blackmon, who works in Charlotte, will drive to Wilmington and take lessons at the Northside Swimming Pool.

“Our program is more than just basic water safety because we also offer opportunities for kids to learn basic water safety, basic swim lessons all the way up to participating in competitive swim,” said Dr. Phil Brown, Chief Physician at New Hanover Regional Medical Center.

Brown is one of the founders of NSEA Swim. Through the NHRMC and Novant Health partnership, Brown met Blackmon, told her about the swim program and convinced her to take lessons. He said the mission is to get African American families involved in swimming.

“There have been times when there have been four generations of lessons taught in that pool even on the same day,” he said.

The lessons are given at Wilmington’s Northside Swimming Pool by design.

“Because we know that area, which is predominately African American has been left out of much of the programming that has existed elsewhere in the community and to us that was just unacceptable,” Brown said.

The program is open to anyone of any age, race or gender.

“We’re making a difference in community—bringing people together recognizing each other’s humanity and truly, truly changing the world one swim lesson at a time,” he said.

As for Blackmon, she’ll likely start her swim lessons in early summer. She’s still afraid of the water but is committed to learning how to do something that could very well save her life.

“You know we always say that it’s never too late to learn and so I’m going to take my advice to heart and learn how to swim,” Blackmon said.

A 5k will be held on Sat., April 24, at the pool to raise money for lessons and scholarships. If you would like to run in the 5k or simply make a donation to the program, click here.

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