Tuesday, February 12, 2019

John Legend Takes Benjamin Franklin’s Advice and is Learning to Swim at the Age of 40

Black History Month Commentary by Bruce Wigo
Black History Month is a time for us in the aquatic community to reflect on why more African Americans and people of color don’t swim.  Especially because for at least 400 years (the period from from 1451 – 1860), People of African descent, Native Americans and the indigenous populations of Oceana excelled “all others in the arts of swimming and diving.”  The cultural history of swimming is both tragic and fascinating and while it helps explain how people of color lost their aquatic traditions and how European/Caucasians became the most accomplished swimmers today – it’s only part of the story.
Last week, John Legend confided on Twitter that he couldn’t swim and was taking his first swim lesson since he was a five year old child.
I can't really swim. Today I took my first swim lesson since I was like 5. My dad learned in his 60's so I feel like I'm ahead of schedule.
6,909 people are talking about this
His announcement, along with the release this week of  “A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim” is bringing renewed awareness to the swimming gap between people of color and white people, not just in the USA but around the world.  But knowledge of this gap is nothing new. We’ve known about it for almost 100 years. The question is what can be done to fix it and realize the founding goal of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, which is “every child a swimmer.”
John Legend Learning to swim at KidsswimLA
Interestingly, Legend graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1999. Had he attended Penn 40 years earlier he would have been required to learn to swim before receiving his degree.  For Penn was the first college in America to build a swimming pool for its students and in 1904 it was the first to make passing a swimming test a requirement for graduation.  It was in keeping with the philosophy of the school’s founding father and swimming enthusiast, Dr. Benjamin Franklin.
“I Cannot be of opinion with you that ’tis too late in life for you to learn to swim,” Franklin wrote to a friend in the mid 18th century. “I wish all men were taught to do so in their youth; they would, on many occurrences, be the safer for having that skill, and on many more the happier, as freer from painful apprehensions of danger, to say nothing of the enjoyment in so delightful and wholesome an exercise…And if I had now boys to educate, I should prefer those schools (other things being equal) where an opportunity was afforded for acquiring so advantageous an art, which once learnt is never forgotten.”
Franklin did not see swimming as a sport.  Rather he saw the ability to swim as an essential life skill, the source of good health and lifelong joy. He also saw it as a “scientific phenomena” which it was for Europeans during his lifetime. This explains why his letter to Oliver Naeve (portions of which are quoted above) was included in the 4th edition of  Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments and Observations on Electricity, which he published in London, in 1769.
As a swimmer, Franklin was an outlier. He was a self-taught and an accomplished swimmer by the age of ten at a time when few people of European descent swam. In his day it was the Africans, Native Americans and the indigenous populations of Oceana who “excelled all others in the arts of swimming and diving.”  In their tropical climates and warm waters, mothers typically taught their children to swim before they could walk.  Before the American civil war 80% of African Americans could swim compared to 20% of Euro-Americans and almost no women of any race swam.  Today, those percentages are almost exactly reversed and there are more female competitive swimmers than males. The cultural history of swimming crosses both race and gender and it is helpful for understanding how the stereotypes and cultural attitudes about swimming have been turned upside down.
The racial swimming gap is not only present in the number of elite swimming competitors and drowning statistics – but in all aquatic activities from Navy Seals to crew men and women on luxury yachts, on lifeguard stands, as marine biologists, sailors, surfers, scuba divers and many, many more professions and recreations.
In his Proposals for the Education of Youth (1749), Franklin noted that the Romans marked someone who was uneducated as someone who could “neither read nor swim. For while math, and the sciences are useful, only the ability to swim can save a life”.  Studies show that if a child doesn’t learn to swim by the age of seven, he or she likely never will.  The same studies show that children of non-swimming parents will likely not learn to swim.
John Legend is not your average African American. He and his wife Chrissy Teigen can afford to pay for and take their toddlers to swimming lessons and change the culture that has not made swimming a priority in his family.  It is for this reason I believe there is only one way to right the wrongs of history and that is to treat swimming as an educational subject as Benjamin Franklin proposed in 1749  But for reasons stated above it should not be done in college or high school –  it must be done in elementary school, as in countries like the Netherlands and Sweden. In those nations children are required to pass a swim test before moving on to middle school.
Yes, pools are expensive, but we don’t need to build competitive race pools at every elementary school.  We need to build warm waterteaching pools not unlike the pool John Legend is learning in, and hire competent instructors. But we also need to educate parents about the importance of swimming and acclimating their children to the water.  As world-renowned swimming coach and instructor Laurie Lawrence of Australia advocates – the first swimming lesson begins with the first bath.
But it’s not just a matter of water safety. All humans spend their first nine months as swimmers.  When we emerge from the womb we all have the bradycardic reflex, which is part of the mammalian diving reflex – just like dolphins, whales and seals. When our faces are exposed to cold water as infants, our hearts slows down and blood is shifted away from the peripheral muscles to conserve oxygen for the brain and heart, and we hold their breath. We are of the sea and it is no coincidence that our body fluids are nearly identical to sea water.
There is also something spiritual, if you will, about the water. In his book, the Blue MindDr. Wallace J. Nichols, explores the Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What We do. In addition learning-to-swim can open minds to the two-thirds of the planet that is covered with water and  to the innumerable occupational and recreational and opportunities that are denied to those who cannot swim.
John Legend and his wife Chrissy Teigen are to be greatly commended for exploring this issue and doing their part to change world culture to one where everyone can swim.  The earth is, after all, is the only planet we know of that has liquid water. How can you be an earthling and not know how to enjoy an element that covers 2/3rd of our planet.
Watch 3 year old Henry White swim 100 meters at the Hall of Fame pool
Watch 2 year old Isabelle demonstrate the joy of swimming that every child should be entitled to experience. 2 year old Isabelle expressing the Joy of Swimming
Watch Norfolk, Virgina News Anchor Regina Mobley tell her story of learning to swim at the age of 46

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

The Importance of “A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim”

Alfred Nakache, Auschwitz Survivor and Olympian, To Be Inducted Into the International Swimming Hall of Fame

Alfred Nakache 2019 ISHOF Honoree
Alfred Nakache, born Nov. 18, 1915 in Constantine, French Algeria, was a French Olympic swimmer and water polo player. He is one of only two Jewish Olympians to compete in the Olympic Games after surviving a concentration camp during the Holocaust.
Alfred Nakache will be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2019 during the Honoree Induction ceremony in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, May 18, 2019.
The Nakache family arrived in French Algeria from Iraq in the late 19th century to settle in the beautiful valley overlooking the Rhummel River. Alfred was the second of 11 children, and at about the age of 10, he learned to overcome his fear of water and began to swim. In fact, Alfred (nicknamed Artem) became a world-class swimmer!
Initially a freestyle specialist, this athlete with “shoulders lined with hard and protruding muscles” had a “gymnast’s arms and legs rather than a swimmer’s.”
Alfred Nakache ISHOF Honoree
Photo Courtesy: Alfred Nakache’s Family
In 1931, Nakache won the Christmas Cup of Constantine Challenge. He was a member of the Nautical Youth Club of Constantine until 1934, and after a few local competitions, he finally realized that he needed to follow the lane lines on the bottom of the pool, and it was then that he began to improve dramatically.
In 1933, he began taking part in the French Championships and moved to Paris at the end of the summer. At the French Championships in 1934, he placed second in the 100 meter freestyle to his idol, French swimmer Jean Taris, who won the silver medal in the 400 free at the 1932 Olympic Games—a tenth of a second behind American Buster Crabbe (4:48.5 to 4:48.4).
However, Nakache knew he could not compete in the upcoming European Championships since he was not yet eligible as a Frenchman—“having not been born on French soil.” He was not yet licensed into a French club, but he finally became a licensed member of The Racing Club de France from 1934-36. During this time, he also was a pupil at the prestigious Lycée Janson-de-Sailly in Paris.
By 1935, Nakache became the French champion in the 100 free, although he preferred swimming the breaststroke. That same year, Alfred was one of 1,000 Jewish athletes who traveled to Tel Aviv to attend the second annual Maccabiah Games, where he won the silver medal in the 100 freestyle crawl.
Alfred Nakache ISHOF Honoree
Photo Courtesy: Alfred Nakache’s Family
After some hesitation, the Popular Front government decided to send a delegation to Nazi Germany for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Nakache finished fourth in the 4×200 freestyle relay with teammates Christian Talli, René Cavalero and Jean Taris, missing the bronze medal by six seconds. They may not have made the podium, but they had the pleasure of beating the Germans (who finished fifth) in their home country, 9:18.2 to 9:19.0. Japan won the event that year with a world record of 8:51.5.
Upon his return home, due to the conflict with Germany, he was forced to interrupt his studies at the Normal School of Physical Education and flee Paris with his wife, Paule, and daughter, Annie. They become refugees in Toulouse during the German occupation. As a Jew from Algeria, Albert Nakache lost his French nationality.
Between 1936 and 1944, Nakache won the French 100 freestyle six times, the 200 free four times, the 200 breaststroke four times and an assortment of other French swimming titles, many of them setting national records.

Alfred Nakache ISHOF Honoree
Photo Courtesy: Alfred Nakache’s Family
By 1941, Nakache was at the height of his career. Swimming for the prestigious TOEC Dauphins swim club in Toulouse, he broke records in France as well as all over Europe. On July 6 of that year—in the seawater pool of the Catalans in Marseilles—Nakache broke the world record in the 200 breaststroke with a time of 2:36.8, bettering American Jack Kasley’s record of 2:37.2, set in 1936. Nakache’s record lasted for five years, and was finally broken by Joe Verdeur of the USA (2:35.6, 1946).
During this time, Nakache began approaching the Jewish resistance networks, such as the Armée Juive (Jewish Army), mainly by helping with the physical preparation of the recruits.
Anti-Semitic persecution intensified all over Europe, and on Aug. 26, 1942, nearly 1,000 Jews were rounded up in Toulouse. The media was split in their support for Nakache. While some welcomed his swimming and the records broken by Nakache, others called for his exclusion from national competitions because of his “Jewishness.” The French Swimming Federation finally gave in to the pressure from the Germans, and banned Alfred Nakache from swimming in the 1943 national championships.
At the time of his records, the Nazis occupied France, and he fought against their claim that “the Jew Nakache…polluted the waters of French pools!” Following the defeat of the German champion and 1936 Olympic swimmer, Joachim Balke, en route to his world breaststroke record in 1941…and soon after setting another European swimming record, a French journalist wrote: “The Jew Nakache should not be allowed to hold any European titles because he is Jewish.” All sorts of subterfuges were employed to keep Nakache from competing in German-occupied France, but other French swimmers withdrew from national competitions in support of their fellow athlete.
Despite their support, when the deportation of the Jews began, Nakache was betrayed by a friend, and he—along with his wife and daughter—were arrested (November 1943) and deported to Auschwitz in January 1944. His wife and 2-year old daughter were murdered by the Nazis upon their arrival in Germany. Of the 1,368 men, women and children in their death camp convoy, only 47 survived.
Toward the end of the War, Alfred was moved to Buchenwald, and in 1945 was freed by the Allies. Nakache was one of the 47 survivors of this camp, weighing only 42 kg (92 pounds) at the time. Four months later, he returned to Toulouse to live with Alex Jany and his family, where he started training under Coach Alban Minville. Less than a year after the liberation of Buchenwald, he was part of the French team in 1946 that set a world record in the 3×100 relay (3 strokes). That same year, he also became the French national champion in the 200 breast and 4×200 freestyle relay.
Alfred Nakache Auschwitz survivor
Photo Courtesy: Alfred Nakache’s Family
Nakache later became part of the winning French national 4×200 freestyle relay and first post-war Summer Olympics team in London in 1948. As far as is known, he was one of only two Jewish athletes who competed in the Olympics after surviving the Holocaust.
Not only that, but he was also a two-sport Olympic athlete, competing in both swimming and waterpolo at the London Games. Nakache swam the 200 breast, placing 12th in prelims (2:50.4) to reach the semifinals, where he finished 16th (2:59.1). After swimming concluded, he was a member of the French water polo team that finished in sixth place overall.
Nakache retired from swimming in the 1950s and devoted himself to his gym and teaching. He also remarried a young girl, Mary, from Sete. Nakache helped train ISHOF Honoree and French swimmer, Jean Boiteux.
Alfred Nakache swimmer
Photo Courtesy: Alfred Nakache’s Family
In 1983, in a sad irony of fate, Nakache drowned, suffering a heart attack during his daily swim in the port of Cerberus.
Nakache was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1993. He was the subject of a French documentary in 2001, entitled Alfred Nakache, the Swimmer of Auschwitz. Many pools in France bear his name, such as the City of Toulouse main swimming pool, named in 1944, when he was in the concentration camp in Auschwitz and believed to be dead.

About The International Swimming Hall of Fame Induction Weekend

International Swimming Hall of Fame
Photo Courtesy: ISHOF
The International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) Induction Ceremony is shaping up to be a star-studded weekend with multiple events spread out over three days in beautiful Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  Make your plans now to attend the weekend of May 17-19, 2019!  ISHOF Members can purchase the Weekend Package and Save!
This year’s International Swimming Hall of Fame honorees include 
  • Swimmers: Jason Lezak (USA), Otylia Jedrzejczak (POL), Stephanie Rice (AUS), Britta Steffen (GER) 
  • Diver: Ting Li (CHN)
  • Water Polo Player: Alessandro Campagna (ITA)
  • Coach: Boris Popov (RUS)
  • Synchronized Swimmer: Olga Sedakova (RUS)
  • Open Water Swimmer: Marcy MacDonald (USA)
  • Contributor: Dr. Ferenc Salamon (HUN)
  • Pioneer: Alfred Nakache* (FRA).  
ISHOF will also present the 2019 Gold Medallion Award to Dr. Joseph B. MacInnis.

2019 Paragon Award and ISHOF Specialty Award Recipients

  • Greg Eggert—Competitive Swimming
  • Don Holbrook—Water Polo
  • Bill Farrar—Competitive Diving
  • Igor Kartashov—Synchronized Swimming
  • Peter Davis—Aquatic Safety
  • Carvin DiGiovanni—Recreational Swimming
  • Carolyn Wood—Buck Dawson Author Award: “Tough Girl”
  • Dale Petranech—ISHOF Service Award
  • David Duda—Judge G. Harold Martin Award
  • Robert Strauss—Virginia Hunt Newman Award
  • Ruth Meyer—John K. Williams, Jr. International Adapted Aquatics Award
  • Peter Bick—Al Schoenfield Media Award
  • Jim Wood* —Lifetime Achievement Award

The Weekend Schedule

Friday, May 17th — Paragon & ISHOF Specialty Awards Night

Saturday, May 18th — Honoree Induction Day Luncheon

Official 55th Annual International Swimming Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

VIP Reception 6:00 PMInduction Ceremony 7:00 –10:00 PM at Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort and Spa

Sunday, May 19th — Swim Across America



  • Host Hotel: Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa

    Four and a half star upscale retreat with private beach access, two pools, four restaurants, full service spa and oceanside bar. Location
    of the Saturday evening induction ceremony. ¼ mile south of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
  • Courtyard by Marriott Fort Lauderdale Beach

    • 440 Seabreeze Blvd., Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33316 (954) 524-8733
    • Special ISHOF Guest Rate of $169 per night
    • Please call 954 524-8733 and mention Swimming Hall of Fame Honoree Ceremony for the special Rate of $169.
For more hotel or ticket Information contact Meg Keller-Marvin meg@ishof.org / 570-594-4367
* Deceased

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Jason Lezak To Be Inducted Into The International Swimming Hall of Fame