GARY — George Thompson, a lanky guy with a gray beard, stood in the shallow end of the no-frills pool, shouting out instructions to the kids.

"Kick those feet behind ya," he said, wearing a black swim cap and red trunks. "Alternating arms, let's go!"

The 8- and 9-year-olds, as best 8- and 9-year-olds can be expected to, followed his instructions, holding foam barbells while attempting windmill strokes. The children spit out water and caught their breath as their faces emerged from the pool.

Thompson, who didn't learn to swim until he was 50, and the organization he works for, the YWCA of Northwest Indiana, are trying to reverse a trend that has existed in Gary and communities of color for decades: the dearth of African-American kids who know how to swim.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found a black child is 5 1/2 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than a white youth, disparities associated with a "lack of basic swim skill in some minority populations." The reasons for those disparities are historical, cultural and socioeconomic in nature.

Before civil rights legislation, public pools in Gary and city schools were segregated by race. The school pools where Gary teens once learned to swim closed due to a lack of funding. Generations of blacks who didn't swim didn't teach their kids, either.

Then there's the issue of hair. African-Americans' hair tends to be drier and more fragile, leading many black women to avoid even getting into a pool, said Michelle Johnson, board chairwoman for the YMCA of Northwest Indiana.

Johnson says hair was a big reason she didn't swim as a child in Gary. She and her three sisters had long, natural hair their mother spent all weekend washing, drying and straightening. They weren't going to erase all her hard work by going swimming.

Johnson, 48, finally learned to swim in 2006. She has since taught the activity to numerous girls at the YWCA.

"It's a life skill, particularly because we live in Northwest Indiana along Lake Michigan," she said. "I mean, you can drown in a bath tub."

She says hair shouldn't prevent African-American girls from swimming. They can braid their locks or put them in a pony tail, washing out the chlorine afterward, or use a special shampoo that gets the chemical out.

Fostering culture change

When Johnson's father, Howard, was growing up in Gary, the pools were still segregated. At Froebel High School, blacks were only allowed to swim on Fridays, the day before the pool was cleaned.

"North Gleason had a park pool. It was all black. That was our pool. Same way with the golf course," he said. Johnson, 72, learned to swim while a student at Roosevelt, an all-black school that then had an operating pool.

There was even a time when African-Americans weren't permitted to swim in Lake Michigan. In the mid-20th century, civil rights organizations tried to integrate the beaches in Gary's Miller section, but were "beaten back," said Ronald Cohen, a professor emeritus of history at Indiana University Northwest.

"Whites would not allow blacks onto the beaches in Miller until the '60s," Cohen said.

For now, the only working indoor public pool in Gary is at the YWCA. One-hundred thirty-eight kids learned to swim there last year, and Executive Director Caren Jones wants to see that number go up.

"Swimming is great for your health. It's great exercise. It's fun. It promotes team-building," she said. "And it's economic. People who know how to swim can get jobs as lifeguards."

Pierre Barnes would know. The 32-year-old is a lifeguard at the YWCA. He says he taught himself to swim after nearly drowning in a pool at a Gary apartment complex.

"I told myself it would never happen again," he said.

So he watched Olympic swimmers on TV, then imitated them in the pool at the Gary Boys & Girls Club (which, incidentally, no longer has a pool).

The matter isn't whether kids will like swimming, he said, but making sure they learn in the first place.

"Once they are around it and get involved, they want to keep coming, once they see the fun of it," he said.

"When I first started, it was kind of scary," said 9-year-old Todd Gardfrey, drying himself off after a recent lesson at the YWCA. "Not anymore."

Thompson, the 66-year-old instructor, said for him learning to swim was a "mid-life crisis."

"I couldn't afford a motorcycle," he said. "So I went out and bought me some trunks."

Thompson, whose alma mater in Gary didn't even have a pool, also taught himself to swim, at the Hammond Y. He went on to become certified as a lifeguard, lifeguard instructor and scuba diver.

The YWCA, where he now teaches, has an after-school program and summer camp where children learn to swim, and also offers lessons to both kids and adults. But the cost is still a burden to some. Jones, the director, hopes people in the community will sponsor low-income kids in Gary who want to swim.

Micki Tuggle, of Gary, says it's worth the expense to send her grandchildren — two sets of twins — to the YWCA.

"Look at them," she said, watching a dozen-or-so black youth, her 12-year-old grandson included, swim in the facility's pool on a recent day. "Where would they get this if they didn't come here?"


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.