N.C. swim team brings Black women to the pool for competition and camaraderie

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For most of her life, Tara Johnson-Drayton stayed on the pool deck, watching others play in the water below. Limited access to pools and her brother’s drowning were just a few of the reasons she never learned to swim.

“My mom never learned, her mom never learned, none of her siblings learned to swim,” she said.

Johnson-Drayton, who is African American, isn’t alone.

In part because of historic institutional racism, 64 percent of African American children have no or low swimming ability, according to a 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation. That’s compared to 45 percent of Hispanic kids and 40 percent of white kids.

Understanding the importance of water safety, Johnson-Drayton sent her three kids to swim lessons, but she still never put a toe in the water.

That was until last December, when she discovered the Mahogany Mermaids — a swim team based in Charlotte geared toward more mature African American swimmers. The team not only gives women of color a safe place to swim; for some it’s helping their swimming fears float away.

Johnson-Drayton said she had never heard of an African American swimming group for adults. “So when I heard of the Mahogany Mermaids I was like, I want to be a part of that,” she said.

Tara Johnson-Drayton at swim practice.Courtesy Tara Johnson-Drayton

Now, for Johnson-Drayton, that fear of the water has been replaced with joy. At the age of 49, she’s learned to swim and become a competitive swimmer.

The team is sanctioned by United States Masters Swimming — the national governing body overseeing programs for swimming adults.

Johnson-Drayton tries to swim several days a week, but that takes extraordinary dedication because she suffers from extreme motion sickness while swimming.

“My head is spinning, and it’s just awful. And who would think that you get motions like this in the water?” she said.

Thanks to medication, she’s able to swim. And having a demanding coach like Nadine Ford is also crucial to her success. “She does not accept failure,” Johnson-Drayton said.

Ford started the Mahogany Mermaids in 2014, when she recruited some friends so she wouldn’t have to work out by herself. Six years later, there are now more than 40 women on the team.

“Nadine is like one of those rare gems. She’s tough around the edges, but she’s sweet as can be inside,” Johnson-Drayton said.

Ford, who admits she’s not a fan of socializing, said she has a big ego and likes telling people what to do. “I’m the center of their universe. Didn’t they tell you that?” she said with a laugh.

Six year after Nadine Ford founded the swim team, Mahogany Mermaids now has 40 members.Mahogany Mermaids

During practice, Ford walks the deck, giving her swimmers stroke advice and tips. She is helping beginners do something they might have never thought possible: swim with grace and ease, and enjoy their time in the water.

While the swimmers credit Ford for their success, the coach

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