There’s a really nice article in The Philadelphia Inquirer today about the Nomads, a mostly-minority rugby team from the city’s rugged North Philly section: http://www.philly.com/philly/news/20140526_The_raw_joy_of_North_Philly_s_young_ruggers.html.
The story got me thinking, “What is it about the City of Brotherly Love and myth-busting in sports?”
Black people don’t play hockey. Meet Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds, who led his team with 29 goals this season. Visit the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, a program that’s introducing a small army of children of color to the joys of hockey.
Polo is a sport for the rich and famous. But someone forgot to tell that to Lezlie Hiner, a University of South Carolina graduate who established Work to Ride, an equestrian program in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park that attracts kids from the poor and working class neighborhoods nearby. In 2011, the program produced the first all-black polo team to win the United States Polo Association’s national interscholastic championship. The program repeated as champs in 2012. Her program put a black polo player in college. http://www.nbcphiladelphia.com/news/sports/Work_to_Ride_African_American_Polo_Team_Wins_National_Championship_Philadelphia-118270169.html.
Then there’s Jim Ellis and PDR. He began an all-black swim team out of a West Philadelphia pool in the 1970s that became a competitive juggernaut and the inspiration of the 2007 movie “Pride.” I had the pleasure of writing about Ellis and the movie that year for what was then AOL’s Black Voices:
On the gritty streets of Philadelphia , long before Rocky Balboa threw his first punch on the silver screen or ‘Invincible’s’ real-life Vince Papale set foot on an NFL field, Jim Ellis was quietly forging a sports legend — and shattering myths. For more than 30 years, Ellis been the driving force of the swim team at Philadelphia Department of Recreation — PDR — a program that has turned black youths from novice tadpoles into top-notch competitive swimmers and cast aside the long-held racist stereotype that black people can’t swim.
What began with 35 black kids at a tough West Philadelphia neighborhood pool in 1971 grew into a juggernaut in the mostly white world of competitive swimming in the 1980s and 90s with more than 150 children taking lessons or competing in meets. Several of Ellis’ charges swam their way to college scholarships and U.S. Olympic team tryouts.
“It was my contribution to the black consciousness movement,” Ellis says. “It was doing something they said we couldn’t do. It was a way of getting kids out of the neighborhood, exposing them to other things and greater possibilities.” Hollywood has discovered Ellis’ against-all-odds story and made it into a movie. “Pride,” which stars Terrence Howard, Bernie Mac and Tom Arnold, opens in theaters nationwide in March. Lionsgate, an entertainment company riding a string of successful black-oriented films like “Akeelah and the Bee,” Tyler Perry’s “Diary of a Mad Black Woman,” and “The Original Kings of Comedy” is producing “Pride”
Ellis, a 59-year-old Philadelphia public school teacher and department of recreation employee, says he still can’t believe the movie was made — especially with Howard playing him — even though he watched it being shot last year in Baton Rouge, La. “I’m excited, I’m happy, I’m thrilled, but it’s kind of weird,” Ellis says. “I saw the movie trailer and saw Terrence (Howard) say ‘I’m Jim Ellis.’ It’s kind of unreal, something I never expected to happen.”
But if anyone’s story deserves telling, it’s Ellis’, according to officials at USA Swimming , the body that helps develop the sport and selects the Olympic team. “Jim Ellis is an icon, particularly because of his dedication to his sport and community, generating national team talent in an area where swimming is just not on the radar,” said John Cruzat, USA Swimming’s first-ever diversity specialist. “And he does it at a parks and recreation facility with little or no resources.”
Ellis and USA Swimming officials hope “Pride” will prompt more black people to learn how to swim and eventually take up competitive swimming, a sport where black athletes are just beginning to make a splash.
Cullen Jones set a meet record in the 50-meter freestyle at the Pan Pacific Championships in Canada and became the first black swimmer to break a world record when he swam in the 4 x100-meter relay. The feats earned the former North Carolina State University swimmer at $2 million, seven-year endorsement contract from Nike, the company’s richest deal ever for a sprint swimmer.
Maritza Correia — recently featured in an Black Voices profile of black athletes in non-traditional sports — became the first black woman to make the U.S. Olympic swim team in 2004. Despite the accomplishments, the number of black competitive swimmers remains small. Less than one percent of the nation’s 232,000 competitive swimmers are black, according to USA Swimming.
More disturbing, Cruzat and Ellis say, is the high number of blacks who die in drowning accidents every year in bodies of water as big as oceans and as small as bathtubs. The Centers for Disease Control lists blacks as an at-risk group for drowning. A CDC study found that blacks drown at a rate 1.25 times higher than whites. Black children between the ages of five and 19 drown at a rate 2.3 times higher than white children in the same age bracket do. Ellis says it’s not that blacks can’t swim. It’s that they don’t. A lack of exposure to swimming, lack of funds for lessons, and limited access to suitable swimming facilities — particularly in urban areas — are factors that hold many blacks back from the water. Then there’s the centuries-old myth that blacks and water don’t mix. Studies from as late as the 1960s suggested that blacks had a unique buoyancy problem that prevented them from being competent swimmers. The studies were later discredited, but not before some people took the findings as gospel.
In 1987 former Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis , explaining on ABC’s “Nightline” why blacks could never become baseball field managers or team executives, argued that swimming proved that blacks didn’t have what it takes to reach the top.
“The just don’t have the buoyancy,” Campanis told an astonished Ted Koppel.
“I put that one on my bulletin board,” Ellis recalls. “For motivation.”
But Ellis believes white racist attitudes aren’t solely to blame. He says many blacks are equally guilty for buying into the stereotype, dismissing swimming as a white country club activity or avoiding the water because it’s better to look good than to swim well.
“You still hear people talking about swimming, black females talking about not wanting to get their hair wet, or folks talking about not wanting to catch colds,” Ellis says with a sigh. The reluctance from within the black community and resistance among some whites within organized swimming to embrace a black swim team didn’t deter Ellis from building his program. But he and some of his former students admit it wasn’t easy. Ellis recounts tales of going to swim meets where officials were loath to announce the winning times of some of his swimmers. If a PDR swimmer won a heat, Ellis says, it wasn’t unusual for white parents to approach him and ask what he was feeding his team. “Parents would accuse us of being on steroids,” says Atiba Wade, 28, who swam for Ellis for 11 years before attending the University of Georgia on a swim scholarship. “Things like that were very sobering. But you can never let it diminish your spirit. You don’t let things tear you down.”
That’s a lesson Wade says he learned from Ellis’ tough-love coaching approach. The heat pump at city-run pool where his charges practice at 5 a.m. doesn’t always work. The some of indoor facility’s windows won’t shut, allowing a winter breeze that adds a chill to water that’s already ice cube cold. There’s no state-of-the art weight room or fancy locker room, like some of the more affluent swim programs have.
But Ellis says those factors shouldn’t be a roadblock from succeeding — in or out of the pool. “He’s tough, but not a brutal taskmaster,” says Wade who interrupted his training schedule for the 2008 Olympic team trials to swim as body double for actor Kevin Phillips, III in the movie. “He encourages you, doesn’t want you to quit. Jim sets the bar at an Olympic standard, at a world-class standard.”
Ellis caught the attention of Hollywood after a writer read a profile about him in The New York Times five years ago and approached the coach about writing his life story. Ellis agreed, but thought nothing of it at the time. “He sent me stuff. I read it and threw it in the trash, he sent some more, threw it in the trash,” Ellis recalls. “Then he sent me a contract. After that, things happened within a year.”
Lionsgate films got interested in the story and sought A-list stars like Howard, who earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing a drug-dealing pimp-turned rap artist in “Hustle & Flow,” to be in the film.
“He’s a bright young man, energetic and very intense,” Ellis says of Howard. “He hung out for about a month before the shoot, hanging out with the kids. I don’t how he picked up so much about me.” The glory years of the PDR team have past, Ellis admits. A program that boasted 150 people at its peak is now down to about 40 kids. Ellis continues his hard-charging ways though, barking stroke combination and times from the slippery deck of the pool. He’s hoping that the upcoming movie will produce a renaissance in his program and maybe, just maybe, persuade some generous entrepreneurs to help build a world-class training facility to teach minorities to swim for fun and competition.
“If you gave me what some of the country clubs have what the established white teams have, we’d put someone in the Olympics,” he says with a competitive glint in his eye.
Myths, stereotypes, and misconceptions are hard to shake, but folks in Philadelphia are showing that they’re up to that task. They’ve got game – no matter what game it is.