Jaila Gladmon is just 15, but for as long as she can remember, she has been quietly setting goals to make the Olympic trials.
That the Snellville teen was essentially chasing a dream that had been unrealized by anyone who looked like her didn’t much matter. Honing her breaststroke, backstroke and butterfly did.
Then on Aug. 11, she and the rest of the world watched Simone Manuel swim her way into the history books, becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming event at the Olympics.
“I was so excited,” Jaila said just moments before another swim practice began at Ebster Pool in Decatur. “When I saw her touch the wall, I could relate. I could feel her emotion.”
And for the first time in her young life, Jaila could feel her dream within her reach.
“I saw what was possible,” Jaila said as a big white smile sprinted across her face.
In the hours and days that followed Manuel’s win, hundreds of African-American women were vowing to learn to swim on social media sites, hair and history be damned.
Decades after the end of Jim Crow laws that kept blacks out of public swimming pools, African-Americans still have a complex relationship with swimming.
If a parent can’t swim, there’s a good chance their children won’t learn either, according to a 2010 report commissioned by USA Swimming. The report found that 69 percent of black children and 58 percent of Latino children cannot swim, compared with 42 percent of white children.
If you’ve been wondering why Simone Manuel felt the weight of the black community on her shoulders, this is your answer. It isn’t that breaststrokes are difficult or the pressure more intense. The burden to win is just heavier.
“Coming into the race, I tried to take the weight of the black community off my shoulders. It’s something I carry with me. I want to be an inspiration, but I would like there to be a day when it’s not ‘Simone the black swimmer,’” Manuel said.
If Jaila’s coach Michael Norment has anything to do with it, that day will surely come.
Norment, a former University of Georgia eight-time All American swimmer and USA National Team member who ranked as fourth in the world in the 100 meter breaststroke, has spent the past decade not only encouraging African-Americans to swim but trying to suspend the stereotype that black people don’t swim.
It’s one of the reasons Manuel’s win is so significant, but there are other reasons to celebrate, too.
“In some ways, it lets kids, no matter their gender or race, believe that they can do it,” Norment said. “And for African-American children in particular, it lets them know this is possible for them.”
Jaila is among about 75 youths ages 4-18 currently enrolled in MAAC, which meets six days a week at the Rosel Fann Pool in Atlanta. Of those, about 40 percent are African-American, although the numbers are now trending toward a 50-50 split.
Bridget Gladmon, Jaila’s mom, thinks she knows why.
Around age 13, she said, black girls, no longer willing to sacrifice their social life or straight hairstyles, drop out. Black boys are drawn away by football and basketball coaches who appreciate the endurance they’ve acquired from laps up and down the pool.
And costs often drive both away.
“It’s not a cheap sport at all because a lot of the meets take place in other states,” Gladmon said. “Plus it’s extremely time-consuming. I spend just as many hours at the pool as Jaila does.”
Despite the commitment and the long, grueling practices, Jaila, a junior at Woodward Academy, has been working hard at this sport since age 7, when she first witnessed a swim team practice at a city of Atlanta pool.
“I always loved being in the water, but I knew then I wanted to swim,” Jaila said.
She started slow, taking a few lessons then joining the practice sessions with the Adamsville Dolphins.
By age 9, Jaila was competing, first with the Dolphins, then with the DeKalb Aquatics team.
“I started taking the sport more seriously,” she said.
Her day begins and ends with swimming, twice a day, six days a week.
It’s paying off. Jaila broke the 100 meter breaststroke record at Woodward in 2014 and 200 meter medley relay last year.
When she isn’t swimming, she’s reading or playing the cello or tickling the piano keys.
“I usually just brush it up into a bun,” she said.
Make no mistake. Jaila, who hopes to one day follow in Manuel’s golden footsteps, has her priorities straight and her sights set on enrolling at Stanford University and then making it into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Hair doesn’t figure into that at all. Breaststrokes, backstrokes and freestyle do.
And we can hope the burden of racism and expectations of which Manuel spoke won’t be hers to bear.
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