Alia Atkinson had no idea she had become a “poster girl” for black swimmers until competing at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, last year.
Atkinson said she was flattered and slightly surprised to discover her exploits had blazed a trail for others to follow after being told by several black swimmers at the competition that she had been their inspiration.
The four-times Olympian admits she had never given too much thought about the role she has played in changing the perception that black people cannot become world-class swimmers.
“I started swimming because I didn’t like track; I didn’t like running,” said Atkinson, who visited Bermuda last week to help coach the island’s aspiring young swimmers.
“It wasn’t something I was fantastic at; it’s something I worked at.
“It wasn’t until the Commonwealth Games where I saw how much being a [black swimmer] meant. I had a lot of people coming up to me from countries like South Africa and say, ‘Thank you; [your success] means so much to me. You’ve been an inspiration’.
“I’d never really taken that into account. I’d never thought, ‘I’m the only black swimmer here, let me represent black people’. No, I was always like, ‘Let’s see what I can do in the pool!”
Atkinson is among a small group of black swimmers to have enjoyed incredible success on the world stage.
Simone Manuel, of the United States, became the first black swimmer to win a gold medal at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, while Maritza Correia, of the US, became the first to win an Olympic medal at the Athens Games in 2004.
Another American, Cullen Jones, who travelled to Bermuda for a training camp in 2016, won gold at the Olympics in London in 2012. Atkinson still feels black swimmers are underrepresented at the world level and believes there are historical and cultural factors that have impeded their progress.
“I worked with the International Swimming Hall of Fame [Museum in Fort Lauderdale, Florida] a few years back and they made a study about the history of black swimming,” said Atkinson, who won Jamaica’s first medal at the Commonwealth Games, claiming silver in the 50 metres breaststroke.
“In the past when everyone was coming over on the slave ships, it was either go overboard and die or stay in the ships.
“[Swimming] was a way of escaping, a way of getting a step ahead, and with everything that was going on, [black people] were taught not to. In the same way, they weren’t taught to read or write or be self sufficient.
“As time went by it went from ‘we shouldn’t swim’ because people are telling us not to, to ‘we can’t swim’, and then turned into ‘why are you swimming? You know we can’t do that’.
“Through the manipulation of our own black mindsets we started to believe we can’t do it. It’s taken people like me and others to show, ‘No, we can; it’s a myth!”
Atkinson’s sport might not be the most popular pastime in the Caribbean, but the Florida-based athlete is doing her bit to ensure youngsters in the region learn to swim.
“I’m involved with Swim Jamaica, a learn-to-swim programme that has been established for a while but has dropped off in recent years,” she said. “We’re trying to re-establish it and get the whole country into it; not just Kingston and the popular cities.
“I’m also involved in swim clinics all over the Caribbean. If one country succeeds, it’s just that country, whereas if the whole of the Caribbean succeeds we can start to have success on the world stage as well. I’m trying to help build [swimming] in the whole of the Caribbean.
“Even if you’re not going to put your child into the sport of swimming, they still need to swim. It’s not just a sport, it’s a life skill.”
Jamaica’s doyen of swimming enjoyed plenty of success last year, winning two golds and a bronze at the World Championships in China last December, six medals, including three golds at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Barranquilla, Colombia, in July — although she admits she underperformed at the Commonwealth Games.
“Last year was fantastic,” said the former Texas A&M University student.
“It started off a bit rocky as I’d taken a bit of a break after the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games were just a little bit too early for me. The times might have been on and off, but if you look at the placings and getting into finals, 2018 was one of the best years of my career. “
The closest the breaststroke specialist has come to a podium at an Olympics is fourth at London 2012. She has not given up hope, though, of winning Jamaica’s first Olympic medal in swimming at the Toyko Games next year.
“I think, for sure, I could finish top-four in Toyko,” she said. “It all depends on the day. A medal would be fantastic.”