James Washington
James Washington Credit: Kelyn Soong

James Washington is a self-proclaimed “late bloomer” in the sport of swimming.

He played baseball growing up in Detroit and didn’t switch over to swimming until 14 or 15. But once he started, Washington says, he never wanted to stop. Eventually, he made it a goal to swim at the collegiate level. And like his father and younger brother, Darien, Washington took his talents to Howard University in D.C. 

Washington only considered swimming at a historically black college or university.

“It was a way for me to see others like me compete in the sport,” the 31-year-old says of swimming at Howard. “It was something I enjoyed when I went to go visit the university.”

Now one of the coaches for the DC Wave Swim Team—a competitive youth swim team run by the District’s Department of Parks and Recreation—Washington takes pride in training the young swimmers in D.C.’s only publicly funded, year-round competitive swim team, which is also known for its diversity. 

“For me to be able to give back to other kids that are maybe late bloomers or maybe our 8 and unders, that kind of kid that grows up and sees a pathway to do something, or commit to something and do something well, I always enjoy doing that,” says Washington, who works full-time as DPR’s aquatics director. “That’s something I will probably not stop doing.”

This weekend, from Feb. 14 to 16, DC Wave will host its 34th annual Black History Invitational Swim Meet at the Takoma Aquatic Center. The meet is open to all swimmers, but Washington says that the team makes a concerted effort to invite teams around the country that are racially diverse. DPR, which jointly produces the event with the United Black Fund, Inc., estimates that nearly 1,100 swimmers will compete, in events like the individual medley, freestyle, butterfly, relays, and back and breast strokes. The meet started in 1987 and has historically attracted teams from as far as Saint Lucia. 

This year, the meet honoree is four-time Olympic medalist Simone Manuel, who in 2016 became the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming.

The team boasts its program as providing an affordable and welcoming way for people to compete in a sport that is notoriously white and expensive. While DC Wave’s annual cost of registration for D.C. residents is $250 per swimmer, membership to private clubs can be hundreds of dollars more. The vast majority of swimmers in the NCAA system are white, and a 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that among people ages 5 to 19, black people drown in pools at a rate 5.5 times higher than that of white people. 

“I think when you look back in history, probably one of the major things that maybe it was a detriment to minority swimmers was just access,” Washington says. “I think through segregation and different transitions in history, accessibility was a big one that probably caused maybe a lot of athletes to focus on other sports.”

Washington believes DC Wave is positioned to help increase diversity in the sport because of its location. The team has four practice locations spread out across the city: Takoma Aquatic Center in Ward 4, William H. Rumsey Aquatic Center in Ward 6, Barry Farm Aquatic Center in Ward 8, and Turkey Thicket Aquatic Center in Ward 5. The D.C. area also has a large number of pools, which has helped produce Olympic caliber talent.

“We are fortunate enough to be one of the most diverse cities in America,” Washington says. “So I think we kind of benefit from that where we see kids or swimmers from really every part of the city.”

Dottie Smith, 13, has been swimming with DC Wave for nearly five years and will be competing in her fourth Black History Invitational Swim Meet.

The diversity at the meet is something she doesn’t see at other competitions. Smith and her teammates have taken notice of that fact.

“It’s very important,” Smith, whose father is black and mother is white, says of having diversity in the sport. “A lot of the other meets we go to, it’s very like, each team is very not diverse at all. It’s so important. There’s so many kinds of people, we need so much more people swimming. It’s so important.”