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Philadelphia Teacher Has Been Making Poor Black Kids Into Competitive Swimmers for 35 Years

  • Nancy Greenleese

In 1972, Jim Ellis was a math teacher in Philadelphia. In his spare time, the former college swimmer started a swim team at an inner city recreation center. The team was unusual for its day since few African Americans had learned how to swim. While there were many pools in cities, few had swimming classes.

Black athletes had made a name for themselves in other professional sports, but a baseball executive said on a nationally televised program in 1987 that African Americans lacked the buoyancy to swim. Ellis told his athletes - then and now - to face down such stereotypes, to strut out on the deck, sit in the prime spot, and send the competition a message: "We are here. We're not going away. You can't close your eyes and we're going to be gone when you open your eyes. We're here and we're going to stay here."

For more than three decades of competition, Ellis and his swimmers from the Philadelphia Department of Recreation team - PDR for short - have been the rare splash of color at meets. The PDR swimmers faced frequent prejudice, and even hostility. They would often return to the bleachers after warm-ups at meets to find their clothing thrown in a corner.

Ellis recalls on incident in a small Pennsylvania town. "A couple of parents approached me in the hall and said, 'You [blacks] have basketball, you have track, you have football, you have boxing. Now you want swimming!' And I just kind of laughed because it didn't look like he was being vicious. It looked like he was just kind of ignorant, [thinking] we're infringing upon their sport."

Ellis' swim team still practices in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Nicetown, which it isn't. Drug deals are made outside the recreation center; inside, the cockroaches practically have their own lane. But for years, Ellis has made the chilly pool into a warm home where kids are expected to perform.

In the 1990s, the PDR program was starting to make ripples in the world of competitive swimming. Ellis' protégés included Michael Norment, the first black swimmer on the U.S. national team.

But Ellis' finest work was done on land, serving as a role model for kids like then-17-year-old Damon Small. "He's the father, he's the teacher and he's like a lieutenant general or something," Small says, remembering how the coach would keep his team in line. "If you do something bad outside the pool, he'll know about it. I don't know how, but he'll know about it. He keeps us straight."

Since forming the team, Ellis has demanded discipline from his swimmers, scolding, "What are you here for? You can't achieve excellence by not practicing!" And he would challenge them: "You don't want to practice, anybody not want to practice? Get your gear, clean your locker out and I'll find another team for you to swim. Anybody?"

No one took him up on that offer. In fact, the competition for a chance to practice as a PDR team member grew. In the mid-1990s, white, suburban kids started joining the team, attracted by a program that has sent swimmers to the trials for every U.S. Olympic team since 1992.

But even with Jim Ellis' efforts over the past 35 years, African Americans today make up less than two percent of the sport's participants. Ellis blames a lack of facilities and swimming role models. "When you look on your TV everyday and see 'Shaq attack' [basketball star Shaquille O'Neal], kids want to dribble balls," he points out. "But there are enough kids out there that can't do these things. And this is a sport that could do it for them."

A handful of PDR's swimmers have reached the sports highest ranks. But Ellis, who still teaches math at a Philadelphia high school, is just as likely to brag about the more than 100 who've attended college on swimming scholarships. Among them, Damon Small, who knew more than a dozen years ago that Ellis was giving him more than medals for swimming. "In my job, later on in the future, I'm sure that I will have a better chance of doing my job better than another person because I've learned patience and I've learned discipline. I think it's really an honor to be on the PDR swim team," he concludes.

Today, Small is a social worker. His old teammates are teachers and nurses, many giving back to the community just like Jim Ellis.

After watching Pride, the new film based on Ellis' work with the team, one PDR alumna says she's ready for the movie's sequel. She says it would be the uplifting, true story of the successful lives of these inner-city swimmers.

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