This all-Black college swim team just made history

This is Howard's first conference title for their men's program in 34 years.

This all-Black college swim team just made history
Courtesy of Jasmine Payne
February 27, 2023, 3:56 PM

An all-Black collegiate swimming and diving team won its first conference championship over the weekend, making history during Black History Month.

Howard University's swimming and diving team took home the 2023 title of the Northeast Conference Men's Swimming and Diving champions on Saturday in Geneva, Ohio, after being last year's runner-up.

"It's the first conference title for our men's program in 34 years, and it feels amazing," said Nicholas Askew, coach of Howard's swimming and diving team. "It just feels phenomenal to know that there's this group of young men and young women who believed that it was possible, even when we were first getting started and all kinds of things were not going our way."

The historically Black university houses the only surviving swim program at an HBCU -- the only all-Black swim team in the country, including coaches and supporting staff -- and strives to increase diversity in aquatics.

According to 2021 USA Swimming estimates, around 1.5% of its approximately 295,000 competitive swimmers are Black. Black swimmers account for just 2% of swimmers at the collegiate level, according to NCAA data.

Askew, an alumnus of Howard and a former swimmer at the university, believes that to bridge demographic disparities in the swimming realm, it takes initiative at a higher level.

"We need, in my opinion, strong legislation that's going to change the cycle that was broken to make sure that there's more access and make sure that there's more quality education for water safety," Askew told ABC News. "Being able to have 'learn to swim' programs that can lead to a life in the aquatic arena, not just in a competitive swim, but also in diving and synchro swimming and water polo and all other water sports that we have the opportunity to participate in."

Howard University's swimming and diving team took home the 2023 title of the Northeast Conference Men's Swimming and Diving champions this Saturday in Geneva, Ohio, after being last year's runner-up.
Courtesy of Jasmine Payne

Swim education among African American children is low, with about 64% of African-American children with little to no swimming ability, according to a 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation.

Askew, a swim coach since 2014, told ABC News that increased exposure at an early age could promote healthy growth in swimming, especially among minorities and inner-city youth.

The all-Black Howard swim team has become something of a family for the Bison, allowing them to relate through the sport and their race in an arena where they have been traditionally underrepresented.

"It allows them to be around people who share experiences that they can't normally talk about or they can't really express themselves. They can't really be authentically themselves. So now they're able to come out of their shell, they're able to be themselves, and they're able to shine while doing it," Askew said.

The 47-member swimming and diving team racked up a multitude of awards this weekend with Miles Simon, an Olympic Trials qualifier, breaking the meet record in the 200-meter individual medley and being named the NEC Outstanding Swimmer, and Jordan Walker named Outstanding Diver.

While this is the first championship the Howard program has won in over three decades, the Division I mid-major program's staff won the Northeast Conference's Swimming Staff of the Year award for the second season in a row. Diving coach Courtenay Miller also won the conference award for Outstanding Dive Staff.

Although the historic moment for the team was important to Askew, he noted that overall support for HBCU athletic programs is "crucial" for their survival.

"We talk about being the only HBCU [with a swim team], but that comes with a warning tag. We don't want to be a program that's cut because, even as a competitive program, NCAA swimming is the number one to cut sports and in all of athletics," Askew said. "We have to be very careful as to the support financially being in the stands, being able to send words of encouragement to the young men and women who are part of the program, as well as to administration."

ABC News' Caroline Rotante contributed to this report.