Roy Fagin knows you can lead a kid to water, but you can’t make him swim. Particularly in the city schools.
Fagin just tried to start up a swim program at Coolidge Senior High School. He failed.
He loves swimming, and he loves Coolidge, from which he graduated in 1972. He knows apathy toward water sports is nothing new at the Brightwood school.
“I was the only swimmer at Coolidge when I was there,” says Fagin, now 57. “I would have been a one-man team, but because I was the only swimmer, I had to swim for Cardozo. They had a swim team.”
During his long career with the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, he’s tried to reverse the tide. In 1985, he was involved in the founding of the D.C. Wave, the DPR-sponsored swim team out of what’s now the William H. Rumsey Aquatic Center, serving as part of the squad’s first coaching staff. A year later, DPR started the annual Black History Invitational Swim Meet to expose local kids to minority swimmers from across the country. I spoke with Fagin about his attempt to start a Coolidge team and the state of the sport in D.C. at this year’s Invitational, held over the weekend at the Takoma Aquatic Center, a state-of-the-art pool located just a few breast strokes from the Coolidge campus. Fagin was there to take part in a 25-year reunion of the first D.C. Wave team, whose members were honored during the opening ceremonies of the swim meet.
Swimming, he says, remains as much a part of his life as ever. Since retiring from DPR, he says he’s followed the same morning routine every weekday: “Read the paper, drink coffee, hit the pool.” His daily workouts, also at Takoma, last an hour. That’s proved plenty. Fagin won a gold medal and a bronze competing in the 55–59 age group at last year’s Summer National Senior Games in Palo Alto, Calif.
Fagin is aware that competitive swimming remains a much bigger deal to him than to others in D.C., and that the level of participation among city school kids hasn’t improved since he was the only swimmer at Coolidge. His old school hasn’t had a team in all the years since he left, and his surrogate school, Cardozo, dropped its team long ago. Dunbar and Woodson have occasionally run swimming programs over the years, but among public high schools only Wilson has regularly fielded a team.
Yet there were reasons for Fagin to hope that change was gonna come. The city’s aquatic sports history has a sordid racial component—pools in the District of Columbia were segregated, and mainly unavailable to blacks, into the 1950s. But several new swimming holes available to all D.C. kids today—headlined by the Taj Mahal of recreational facilities, the $35 million aquatic center opened last year at Wilson—are several laps ahead of what previous generations of any color had.
And the D.C. Wave program that Fagin helped start is now doing, um, swimmingly. Club organizers say that D.C. Wave has 120 kids swimming this year, almost all of them black. More than 80 club members entered the latest Black History Invitational.
Rob Green, assistant coach of the D.C. Wave, points not only to the ubiquity of Michael Phelps but to the high profile of his Olympic teammate, Cullen Jones, who became the first black American male swimmer to win Olympic gold. Add that to the slick new facilities, Green says, and D.C. has the makings of a natatorial golden age. “I think historically, participation [among black kids] was low because it was a question of opportunity, but D.C. now has facilities to compete with what’s available in the suburbs,” he says. “I think it’s booming.”
But that hasn’t translated into a swimming boom in the D.C. Public Schools.
Last spring, Fagin began talking to Coolidge administrators about forming a squad there. He thought kick-starting a program would be a great way to give back to his favorite sport and his alma mater.
“I want to tell kids: Swimming can get you a scholarship. It got me one,” to Morgan State, Fagin says. “And when you have a building right next door to the school with a pool, it doesn’t make sense not to have a swim team.”
So, early into this academic year, he got permission to make announcements over the Coolidge PA and to post notices at the school calling for a meeting of all interested swimmers.
Five kids showed up at the meeting. All boys. Only one had ever swam competitively. A second attendee told Fagin he was interested in learning how to swim.
“The three other guys, I’m not sure why they came to the meeting,” he says. “Maybe they just wanted to jump in the pool.”
Fagin admits the turnout depressed the heck out of him. But he scheduled an official practice for the fledgling Coolidge “team” at Takoma. Three of the five kids from the meeting came for the first workout. Only two made the second workout. Then the swim team was down to one guy, just like old times. Only worse.
“Pretty soon I’d get calls [from the last swimmer] before practice saying, ‘I’ll try to meet you at the pool,’” Fagin says. “And you know how that goes. It just fizzled out, petered out.”
Perhaps it’s progress that Fagin doesn’t attribute the quick fizzling of the Coolidge swim team to racial or cultural differences.
“It’s not because ‘black kids don’t swim.’ I don’t see that,” he says. “The boys just weren’t interested. And the girls? Forget it. I don’t know what the exact reason is. I think [the kids today] are too self-centered to go out for a team, really. If there’s no interest in swimming at the school, there’s nothing we can do. I tried.”
So will that interest level ever reach a point where Coolidge and most other D.C. public schools can have teams? “In my lifetime? I really don’t know,” he says. “I don’t want to say it won’t change, but…”
As Fagin speaks, in the background, a tournament organizer from the Black History Invitational takes over the PA at the Takoma pool and gets the opening ceremonies started. The speaker begins by trying to fire up the field of young competitors about the future of minority swimming in the United States.
“If it is to be, it is up to me,” the speaker says. He asks the crowd to repeat the phrase with him. But the volume on the sound system is turned too low, so the message doesn’t reach most of the kids in the building.
He repeats the line alone a couple of times before giving up.
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