Growing up as a young swimmer, I mainly looked to Michael Phelps as a role model because he has been successful throughout his career and exhibited the resilience that every swimmer aspires to have. On the other hand growing up as a young Asian American swimmer, I could have looked to Tara Kirk or Nathan Adrian. But I probably had an attitude like a stereotypical athlete: when my relay team of all Asian-American female swimmers was ranked 4th nationally in our age group, my parents and relatives celebrated the racial implications of it, “But look at you all! Being the first all Asian-American female relay to place nationally!” While I “just wanted to swim,” I largely ignored the hegemonic connotations of my attitude toward race and gender.
Historically, segregation threatened African Americans economically and socially, and up until the Civil Rights Act in 1964, only white people had access to pools. Even today, pools tend to exist in predominantly white neighborhoods. Moreover in 2012, the University of Minnesota published a study about the “problem of racial disparities in drowning”, citing that “between 2000 and 2007, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans across all ages was 1.3 times that of whites. The fatal drowning rate of African-American children ages 5 to 14 is 3.1 times that of white children in the same age range” (1). While the issue of access also unquestionably applies to all other target groups, there aren’t any statistics for Asian Americans. In many other studies that I have sought online, there has been no in-depth research of the relationship Asian Americans have with swimming. This unexplored (or unquestioned) part of a racial group perpetuates the Model Minority myth in that it echoes the hegemonic belief that Asian Americans do not (or should not) present a problem to society and, by extension, much less do not matter in sports.
Honestly, I’m not sure as to why there aren’t more Asian American female swimmers. As a competitive swimmer until senior year of high school, I started swimming in a diverse, relatively racially balanced group, but more and more people left the sport as I got older. There seems to be a larger drop rate as an individual progresses in competitive swimming from elementary school, middle school, high school, collegiate and to the Olympic level depending on one’s answer to this question: Can I see myself pursuing this sport in the future? I saw that this disproportionately affects females because swimming becomes a growing frustration and taxing physical exertion when a biologically female body undergoes puberty or changes during menstruation. In short, very few of my female peers chose to stay in the sport for purely leisurely reasons unlike my male peers.
Recently USA Swimming published an Asian-American Cultural Inclusion Guide to create a more racially welcoming atmosphere as part of their line of inclusion guides (2).
Above: Page 4 of the guide cites estimated statistics regarding Asian Americans’ overall ability to swim. The guide also features swimmers of “elite level success […] either in or out of the pool”, including (from bottom left to right) Nathan Adrian, Tara and Dana Kirk, and Natalie Coughlin.
Even though this guide serves to promote swimming as a national sport and appeal to Asian Americans across the nation, I think there is a subtle discontinuity to cite drowning statistics in the first part and list the names and accomplishments of Olympic swimmers or members of National Team in the second part. Besides providing benefits of being involved in a competitive swim team and having four websites under “programs” to facilitate a person’s first swim experience, the D&I team could interview their featured “elite-level” successful swimmers and include at least one anecdote in the guide that inspired an Asian-American world-class swimmer to swim competitively.
Furthermore while this guide celebrates world-class athletes who are mostly biracial, I could not help but think of other non-reported Asian American swimmers who were on the USA standard cut-off between collegiate and the Olympic level. The promotion of locally or even state-known swimmers would make this guide more effective in fulfilling its purpose. Moreover usually before reaching the collegiate level, swimmers typically compete within their region or state, so this guide should also celebrate other Asian American swimmers from a different range of swimming levels or at least include a link to a list of top Asian American swimmers in each region/state. *
Whereas Jeremy Lin was an Asian American icon who unified the immigrant voice and encouraged a transnational discussion of racial identity in sports, I would argue that Tara Kirk and Nathan Adrian are among many Asian American swimmers who unified a generation who largely don’t know how to celebrate Asian American icons, which isn’t an awful thing as long as an individual chooses to not ignore the hegemonic implications and the barriers target groups would face if they choose to participate in predominantly white sports. Personally I wasn’t ready to have a thoughtful conversation about Asian American icons when Linsanity was at its peak, and I definitely wasn’t ready when Tara Kirk choose to exit from her swimming career after 2008. In the end, I think this ultimately draws into how socially accepted it is to be casually racist toward Asian Americans (within or without a sports context) through the problematic Model Minority myth despite knowing that identity is actually multifaceted.
Hopefully when swimming draws more media attention and more swim icons are Asian American, athletes from different target groups will choose not to criticize each other based on race but instead foster a healthy sibling-hood that exist even across different sports as when Cullen Jones celebrated Simone Manuel’s accomplishment (3):
Hopefully by then, the scope of swimming will be more diverse and induce more developed discussions of multiracial icons in traditionally white sports.
* USA Swimming has a database of all registered swimmers and their demographic information and publicly posts every time of all events in a swim competition. At the end of each short-/long-course season, a regional and/or state-level banquet would be held and produce booklets recognizing top swimmers. Logistically after querying swimmers from these booklets and matching them to their racial identity, a compilation of top Asian American swimmers in each region/state could be distributed in this respective inclusion guide. As such, this idea would apply to other minority inclusion guides. Another minor critique I have is having this guide translated in different Asian languages to promote the message that USA Swimming’s D&I team intended to make.