Inner-city kids face fears and longtime racial barriers to learn the joys of swimming

It's Wednesday, the third day of class, and Shemar is sprinting toward the bleachers, screaming "NO no no no NO!"

Robert Langston, the lifeguard, hops out of the pool, runs after him, loops his right elbow around the boy's waist. "Hey, little man. It's all right. You're OK. I got you, and I ain't going to let anything happen to you."

Shemar shivers, sighs and relaxes just a bit in the lifeguard's arms. Langston hugs the boy against his broad chest and eases into the water. Shemar screams, clawing the lifeguard's back.

"Nothing to be scared of, my man."

Langston grew up in projects in south St. Petersburg. When he was 6, he and some other kids hopped the fence at a public pool. He learned to doggie paddle real quick, he says; never did take lessons.

Now, he's teaching 30 kids a day. He's 24, wants to be a full-time lifeguard and swim teacher.

If only Shemar would let go of his shirt. The child is chin-deep now, his arms around the lifeguard's neck. Langston peels off the boy, flips him on his back.

He shows the kids how to float, kick, open their eyes under water. Make puffy faces, holding their breath. Blow bubbles, like blowing out a candle.

One by one, he pulls the children across the pool, letting them feel what it's like to move through the water, calling, "Good job! You can do it! That's it!"

While the other kids take turns, Shemar escapes two more times. Langston and another lifeguard carry him back. A big boy taunts, "Shemar can't swim!"

"You can't either," Langston says. "But y'all will."

Isaiah McLendon, 4, frantically propels himself to the side of the pool, sinks beneath the surface of the water, then confidently pulls himself up on the pool's edge mission accomplished.

Basketball and boys' bikinis

"Hey, I'm not surprised black folks drown more," Langston says. "Most kids I grew up with are scared of water. Swimming wasn't the thing."

The reasons include basketball, buses and barbecues, the lifeguards say. Money is another factor. Plus those skimpy Speedo suits they make you wear at swim meets.

In 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 319 people drowned in Florida. About 25 percent were African-Americans. That year, African-Americans made up about 14 percent of the state population.

"That's why we're all so into this here ... Get these kids to learn so they'll be safe."

Most African-American mothers have to work, the lifeguards say. They don't have time to take their kids to swim lessons. Most can't swim themselves.

"Family friends tried to teach me at the beach when I was a kid," says Shemar's mom, Leslie Rhaney, 29. "But those waves scared me. I never got in past my knees. When I was 20, I took lessons at the YMCA. They said I was hazardous. I gave up."

"The south side only has a handful of pools," Langston says. "Hardly any private ones. South of Central Avenue, I bet you can't count seven pools in people's yards. On the north side, they're everywhere. It's not like we're going over to the neighbor's house, jumping in.

"But you can always find somewhere to play football or basketball. Got a crate and a tree? You got game. Pools? They're a lot harder to come by."

Most of these kids' parents don't have cars, lifeguard Jarvis Vinson says. "They sure aren't going to ride the city bus to get here," he says. If kids want to swim, they have to ride bikes or walk.

Look at pool parking lots. Fossil Park Pool off 62nd Avenue N has 120 spaces. McLin pool has a dozen spots, most empty most of the day.

What about the beach? It's free. From some south St. Petersburg neighborhoods, you can walk to the water.

"No one around here goes to the beach except to cook out," Vinson says. "We go Memorial Day, maybe Fourth of July. But we don't swim."

Pool admission and swim lessons cost money. McLin pool charges $25 for three weeks of lessons. For folks on welfare and other public assistance, the cost drops to $6.25. Most of the preschool groups pay the reduced rate.

"Some families can't afford groceries," Langston says. "How are they going to pay for swim lessons?"

About 100 children are taking lessons at McLin this summer.

"That's another thing wrong. All the south side pools are summer only," Langston says. The only heated pools are North Shore and Walter Fuller, on the north side of the city. "How are we going to get there?"

When you can swim only three months out of the year, it doesn't become part of your life, he says. "We can always throw a football."

He and the other guards want to work year-round. But they can't do it at McLin. If they don't get hired at North Shore or Fuller, or they can't find transportation, they might have to find other jobs.

No wonder African-American lifeguards are so scarce.

Most African-Americans don't feel as confident in the water as white people. In a 1994 Public Health Reports survey, 62 percent of African-Americans said they had limited swimming ability vs. 32 percent of white people.

Army recruiters have noticed the discrepancy. In the 1980s they had a hard time getting minorities into the Special Forces. Plenty of African-Americans were applying. But on the third day of try-outs, everyone had to swim two laps of the pool wearing fatigues and combat boots.

Fifteen percent of the African-Americans failed, compared with 3 percent of the whites.

The problem goes back centuries.

Lee Pitts is an African-American banker who lives in Pembroke Pines and teaches swimming. The first slaves who came here knew how to swim, he said. "But the plantation owners knew that ability could help them escape."

When slaves drowned trying to get away, Pitts said, plantation owners displayed the bodies, saying, "You see? You people can't swim."

For hundreds of years, that fear kept many African-Americans out of the water.

And until the '60s, most public pools didn't admit minorities.

"We also should look at pool conditions," says Brenner, the researcher. "Are pools African-Americans go to typically more crowded than other public pools? Do they have fewer lifeguards?"

It's more the cool than the pool, Langston says.

He and the other African-American lifeguards at McLin all were strong swimmers by high school. Yet none of them joined the swim team.

"Just not the thing to do," he says. "You go to those swim meets. You have five high school teams. You see one, maybe two black faces.

"All the fellows say, 'We ain't wearing bikinis.' Maybe if we all were more exposed to it growing up. Maybe it'll be different for these kids."

After all, when Langston was their age, Tiger Woods hadn't become king of golf; Venus and Serena Williams hadn't taken over tennis. The so-called country club sports are becoming more integrated. Maybe Shemar or Preya will be the first African-American swimmers to win an Olympic medal.

"Yeah," Langston laughs. "First we have to get them to stop crying."

Sink or swim

The water's not cold. Shemar tested it with his toes. It's not so deep. Yesterday, while Langston held his legs, he put his head under and touched bottom. He's leaning over the edge now, staring into the blue.

Whimpering a little. No tears.

His mom is here to watch. It's Thursday. The fourth day of class.

Langston tells them to sit up, don't move.

"I don't want to do that!" Shemar whines.

"OK, now you're going to have to ..."

"I don't want to do it! Don't want to! NO no no no NO!"

"You don't even know what we're going to do."

"But I don't want to. MAMA!"

"OK, now, I'm going to hold your arms up, one at a time, drop you in. You're going to go under, turn around, grab the wall. OK?"

Some of the kids nod. Shemar keeps whining. "NO no no no NO!"

A 5-year-old boy sitting next to Shemar leans over, puts his arm around the little boy's shoulders. "Don't be afraid," he whispers. "You can do it."

Shemar shakes his braids. "I don't want to!"

"It's not that scary," says the bigger boy. "Here, I'll go first."

He goes, then another boy, and another. Preya edges toward the side. Langston drops her in. She comes up sputtering but alive. She doesn't have to, but she gets back in line, wants to go again.

Shemar is last.

His mom walks to the side of the pool winding a disposable camera. "He still doesn't like this," she says. "But this morning, at least he put his swim trunks on himself, without screaming."

Hard to believe. "I don't want to do it!" he's still saying. "Mama!"

Shemar's mom creeps closer with her camera, crouches down. Her high-heeled silver sandals squish in the water at the edge of the pool. "You go, Baby!" she cries. "You do it. Mama's watching."

The American Academy of Pediatrics says all children should learn to swim after kindergarten. "Because a relatively high proportion of black children between the ages of 5 and 19 drown in swimming pools, this recommendation may be particularly relevant for this group," Brenner wrote in Pediatrics.

So open a year-round pool in their community, Langston and the other lifeguards say. Build more pools in African-American neighborhoods. Offer free swim lessons through daycare and elementary schools. Teach the parents. Tell African-American kids they can swim. They need to know how to swim. Make it a bigger part of their culture, and it'll become more cool.

"Come on now, my man. These other kids didn't drown. Just jump," Langston says. Shemar scoots away. Langston drags him back.

The little boy's lips are quivering. He squeezes his eyes. Makes a puffy face.

Langston dangles him over the water. Drops his hands. SPLASH!

Shemar's mom gasps. In her fright, she forgets all about the camera. Her boy's down there, sinking fast.

"He'll be OK," Langston says.

Shemar is spinning in circles under water. His eyes are still closed. Arms flailing. Feet churning. He can't find the side.

His mom is shrieking, fanning her face with both hands, bouncing on her heels.

The lifeguard jumps in just as Shemar grasps the edge.

"You did it!" Langston shouts, hugging Shemar hard. "Give me five!"

Little hand smacks big hand. Shemar climbs out of the pool, walks past his mom, who's still panting. Goes over to the boy he'd been sitting next to in line.

"I wasn't scared," Shemar whispers.

"That's cool," says the bigger boy. "Now you won't be scared no more."

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