More than a generation of Americans have grown up never hearing Martin Luther King Jr. on the radio, watching him on television or reading about him in newspapers. But King’s spirit lives on as activists continue to fight for equality, diversity and social justice, even within the sport of swimming.

In a year where the Black Lives Matter movement has reached new levels, especially in response to the death of George Floyd, more and more people are speaking out for change. In the sport of swimming, several athletes have spoken out and continue to speak out.

Lia Neal and Jacob Pebley combined to start Swimmers for Change, a grassroots movement involving over 30 Olympic, Paralympic, and U.S. National team athletes with the goal of supporting black communities and fighting systemic racism

“It was a way of having the same community—a predominantly white sport and white community—step up and show their support as allies for the black community to just say that black lives matter,” Neal told Swimming World last fall. “That very simple and what many would say is common sense or morally right ideology was just something that wasn’t being said.”

Neal is a two-time U.S. Olympian, who represented the U.S. in the 400 free relay at the 2012 Olympics while just 17 years old, and then again qualified for the Rio Olympics in 2016. She has won two Olympic relay medals along with five World Championship medals—and she is mixed race, of both Black and Chinese descent.

Since 2000, only five Black or biracial swimmers have qualified to represent the U.S. in the Olympics — Along with Neal, it has been Anthony Ervin, Maritza Correia (now Maritza McClendon), Cullen Jones and Simone Manuel. All have won Olympic medals, but each Olympic team averages 55 to 60 swimmers total, and Black swimmers make up 13.4% of the U.S. population. Five total swimmers over five Olympic cycles represents a sport with a glaring lack of diversity.

The Black Leadership in Aquatics Coalition (BLAC), a group of 14 current and former members of the U.S. national team that began working with and advising USA Swimming on racial issues around this time, a group that includes Manuel, Jones, Ervin. Among BLAC’s earliest actions, was formed and the group worked with USA Swimming to craft a statement that reflected the premise that used the words “black lives matter” in the aftermath of Floyd’s murder, and the group has continued to work with USA Swimming to put in place new measures to promote diversity and inclusion in swimming.

“I started talking with Lia Neal and some of the other Black swimmers,” Jones said. “We talked with USA Swimming. They said publicly that they support Black athletes. We needed to be on the same page and try to make some change. The coalition was formed. My governing body having a sounding board in our sport and have a governing body that actually listened. I am thankful for this next generation to have an intimate relationship with their sport’s governing body. It happens in other sports. It was a breath of fresh air.”

Manuel has been an outspoken inspiration within the sport for years.

The coalition has included several of the younger national team members, including Reece Whitley, who has become even more outspoken about racial relations in the U.S. and within the sport.

“We have been participating in conversations in kind of a consulting role with USA Swimming on issues regarding race,” Whitley told Swimming World in August. “We feel that our voice has the most visible black swimmers in our sport and we owe it to those who are not as visible as we are to make sure that USA Swimming is supporting them and doing things to help all USA Swimming members. We are extremely determined to promote long lasting change.”

That supports what Whitley said all along was the most important step toward achieving the goal of racial equality — having conversations.

The conversations have been going on long enough and have been heard. The work is not done, but Whitley said it finally reached the point where nothing is going to take that conversation away.

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Photo Courtesy: Connor Trimble

“The conversation is at a point where it is not going to stop,” Whitley said. “A lot of people are very, very committed in seeing things through. Hopefully in my lifetime, I can sit back and say I was part of something — this generation was a part of something — that made great change for our country.”

Throughout all of the racial turmoil of 2020, more people — and more swimmers — are speaking out for change.

That is exactly how Martin Luther King Jr. started. He spoke out, people began to listen, and it invoked change.

Swimmers are speaking out in 2021, people are listening and we as a country and a sport are on the right track. But just like Martin Luther King’s actions, they will take time and we cannot stop listening, or all of the momentum will be lost.

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