One by one, North Carolina A&T State University swimmers straggled into the Corbett Sports Center pool Tuesday afternoon.
Although they were preparing for one final home meet, they refused to practice with heavy hearts, distracted minds or bottled up self-pity. Their moods were light and positive.
Saturday marks the last regular-season meet for the 1-5 Aggies, whose Division I program will close after this season. The university announced the cut in 2013, citing the lack of swimming sponsorship from other Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools. Of the country’s 107 HBCUs, A&T and Howard University are the only two with swim teams.
They will swim one another Saturday in Greensboro to close A&T’s farewell season.
The Aggies, who’ve had to stay above water three years knowing the inevitable would eventually hit, call themselves “the last of a dying breed.” While college swim programs across the nation have been on the decline, A&T has had a unique situation in boasting the only all-black women’s team.
In 2013, A&T officials announced the women’s swim program would be dropped because of the lack of MEAC sponsorship. In exchange for cutting the program, A&T added three new sports in men’s tennis, men’s and women’s golf and women’s soccer, and reinstated men’s tennis.
“Sometimes, through obstacles, people break in the midst of really bad things,” Aggies senior sprinter Kenya Dunn said. “We want to show people you can’t break us. Anything they throw at us, we can get through it. Throughout the year, we’ve been trying to stay positive. We’re all trying to get through this together. It’s been such a great experience.”
Dunn, who is from Charlotte, was one of five seniors who as sophomores were told their sport at A&T would be closing its doors. The Aggies’ first season was in 1998-99.
Longtime swim coach Shawn Hendrix said many of them could have left, but they were able to finish out their scholarships.
It’s hard to recruit when you say, ‘We’d love to have you here, but we’re only going to have the program for two years.’
Aggies swim coach Shawn Hendrix
“Normally when they cut a program, they just say you’re done,” Hendrix said. “They don’t say you’re going to be done in three years, so that was huge. We had just finished redoing the pool and everything. They could have left. They could have swam anywhere else, but they were committed to stay here.”
Though the swimmers stuck around, they and some of the A&T community were still gravely disappointed by the move.
Jasmine Gurley, a 2012 A&T graduate, started a petition on change.org to prevent the discontinuation of the program. It was signed by 2,404 supporters. She cited in her letter how swimming wasn’t a prominent sport in the black community, which is why she was fighting for it to stay at Greensboro school.
Nearly 70 percent of blacks have little or no swim experience, according to a 2012 study released by the Centers for Disease Control, putting them at a higher risk for drowning. Black children aged 11 to 12 drown in swimming pools at 10 times the rate of white children that age, the study reported.
“I grew up around white teams, so I swam on white teams. It was just something different to see all these black girls swimming,” said Aggies swimmer Victoria Orr, who wanted to compete at an HBCU. “(Swimming for A&T) was just an eye-opener. I was stuck in the dark. I would say, ‘Why am I swimming. No black people swim like that.’ My whole team was white, so it was just really amazing to see this. (We are) trying to break that drowning statistic and that stereotype that black people can’t swim.”
Fatal, unintentional drowning rates are disproportionately higher in blacks versus whites, according to the Centers for Disease and Control. Black children 5 to 19 drown in swimming pools at a rate 5.5 times higher than white children, and black children aged 11 to 12 drown in pools at a rate 10 times higher than white children that age.
The Aggies have used their final season to further defy those stereotypes, becoming role models in the process. They posed for vibrant team pictures that went viral in January.
“Online, a lot of people have noticed,” said Dominique Crable, an Aggies sprinter from Philadelphia, Penn. “A lot of kids do look up to us, especially after the picture. Hopefully, someone notices what (cutting the program) can cause. There are a lot of young African-American swimmers that want to swim at an HBCU but can’t because it’s the only one.
“The coach at Howard can’t recruit everyone, you know?”
A&T is 3-1 against Howard since the 2014-15 season. It will compete in the Coastal Collegiate Championships, which start on Feb. 18 in Athens, Ga., following the regular-season finale.
“I don’t think you really say goodbye, I think you transition,” said Hendrix, who will continue to teach health classes at the university. “Asheville made a poster for us at our swim meet Saturday. They had the ‘A’ and the ‘T’ and it said ‘Once ‘A’ team, always ‘A’ team. I think that’s the thing: we’ll always be a team.”
Hendrix offered an analogy on her thoughts about the implications of losing one of the only black-college swim programs left.
“I don’t know what will happen,” she said. “It’s like when you throw a rock into a river. You see the ripple but you don’t know how far that carried until time. They just realized that the last couple of weeks we have here, you’re leaving a legacy. When we swim Howard Saturday, you’re pretty much marking a stone in history.”
Jessika Morgan:919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan