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The last all-Black college swim team is on the verge of victory

A Howard University swimmer in the pool. (Devin Speak for Here & Now)
A Howard University swimmer in the pool. (Devin Speak for Here & Now)

As Howard University’s men’s and women’s swimmers step up to the block at the Northeast Conference Championship this week, they have years of losses behind them.

For years, coaches juggled other full-time jobs and practice schedules were inconsistent at best. Loss after loss made the message clear: Swimmers weren’t being supported. Some Howard swimming alumni pushed for the program to be shut down altogether.

One of them was Nicholas Askew of the class of 2000.

“It was a disservice to the student athletes that came here with hopes and ambitions of developing and getting better and not having a consistent coach,” Askew says. “My answer to the equation was just cut it. Stop having a program that’s not being supported.”

Nic Askew is the head coach for Howard University’s swim team. (Devin Speak for Here & Now)

Instead, the department courted him to take the top job and turn the program around instead of eliminating it.

It’s been nine years since Askew became the director and head coach of the Howard University men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams — it took years to get the program built to where it is today.

Askew reached a turning point in 2016: the first time the team won a dual meet, breaking the nearly 15-year losing streak.

“One of the guys asked me, ‘Coach, who won?’” Askew says. “I flipped the page to where the scores were. And I had a dramatic pause, looked at the scores, and I announced to them that we had won, and they just erupted. It was such an emotional moment.”

Howard swim isn’t a national powerhouse on the level of NCAA victors like the University of Texas and Stanford University. But what they lack in banners, they make up for in the long road to get where they stand today, as the last historically Black college or university team in a sport where Black athletes are underrepresented.

Members of Howard University’s swim team lay down by the pool to warm up. (Devin Speak for Here & Now)

4 questions with Nicholas Askew about the swim program

Why did you take the coaching position?

“It’s an easy answer. This is my alma mater. I love Howard University. I loved being here as a student athlete in my four years. It was another opportunity to be able to say, ‘Okay, well, you talk to all that talk, now it’s time for you to go do the work.’”

What was it like recruiting your first class of swimmers? 

“The story and the conversations that I had with each of them is that they would be the first. They would be the ones who will be resetting the tone for the program. And if we got it right, their names would go down in history as being the ones that were the first to do it. And they bought into that and they worked extremely hard. They saw it, they could see it and they could feel it.

“I think a lot of that had to do with knowing that an alumni — somebody that had swam in this pool, who had been on the yard, you know, all the different things that college challenges can present — I’d been there. I had done that. I had excelled through it. And then having the faith that I would be able to lead them through it, I think had a lot to do with it.”

How did you bring Black history of swimming to the team? 

“It’s unfortunate because we have to go through the painful past, and that evokes a lot of different emotions. But they come in with an awareness of who they are and where they’ve come from. So the conversations come very organically, very easily, very naturally.

“I often talk about the cycle ancestrally, in our culture coast of West Africa, people swam for their livelihood because they were on the waterways. Once our ancestral people were in the Americas, the waterways were means of escape for the enslaved people. So the enslavers at the time would punish harshly those who would try to escape. And so in that cycle, parents and loved ones would say, ‘Don’t go near the water,’ because they knew that would be a death or near-death experience for their loved ones. So that cycle was broken. And then we talk about Jim Crow. Even integration had an effect on the amount of people of color being able to to be at a competitive level, because now that opened up the opportunity to go to any school where it was denied before. So that decreased the amount of people who would go to HBCUs, where in the sixties, in the seventies, I mean, it was at least 25 to 30 HBCUs that had competitive swim programs.

“So what we have to do now is we have to break the cycle again. And the only way that we’re going to be able to do that, in my opinion, is through legislation. And I think it is going to really have to start within the schools to make it a requirement to learn to swim and water safety, just like we require our children to have to learn how to do several other things. Swimming is a life skill, and unfortunately, it’s a public health crisis in our community.”

 How did this team’s journey change you? 

“Being a college coach, being in athletics, it’s tough because we go through every single race, we go through every single event, we’re at every single practice. So we feel it and it can be very, very draining. But to see our athletes shine, even if it’s not breaking a record, just being able to see them get through the toughest spots. And sometimes it has nothing to do with athletics. We talk as a coaching staff all the time about trust the process, and that’s not something that we just came up with today. It’s been a part of our establishment, it’s been a part of our conversations all the way through in the last nine seasons.

“Now we’re in that stage where the team is able to really have that confidence that they’ve done the work. Now it’s time to go and reap the benefits of that investment.”

James Perkins-Mastromarino and Katherine Swartz produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Catherine Welch. Swartz also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.