BLAME THE COST of swimming lessons—about $100 a month—or a historic lack of access to pools in black communities. But nearly 70 percent of African American children do not know how to swim. The unsurprising result: Black youth drown at a rate three times that of whites.
Lisa Dahl, a world-class swimmer turned coach, has made it her mission to change this. First by reciting the grim numbers to anyone who will listen. And then by arranging scholarships for young swimmers who join her Central Area Aquatic Team (CAAT).
The motivation is personal. When abuse and neglect made Dahl’s own childhood unbearable, underwater rhythms calmed her. When academic hurdles left Dahl feeling less than capable, success in the racing lanes buoyed her spirits. By 18, she was the fifth-fastest swimmer in the nation and had earned a scholarship to the University of Southern California.
Not until she arrived in Seattle in the late ’90s did the blue-eyed blonde realize how many other kids lose out on such opportunities. Openly lesbian, Dahl, 51, and her partner were raising two Mexican-Hopi daughters and, naturally, put them on a swim team. “That’s when my eyes were opened as to how white this sport is. I’m just desperate to change that,” Dahl says.
Her team’s Get Wet program—three weeks of free coaching aimed at introducing children of color to CAAT—is Dahl’s main plan of attack, and her efforts are receiving vocal support from the diverse population in the Central Area.
As a private coach, however, Dahl cannot offer lessons at a municipal facility, even though her team pays handsomely to rent the pool. “There are all these hurdles that sound like standard bureaucracy,” she says. “But they always seem to affect one group more than any other: kids of color.”