14 Trailblazing and Influential Black Swimmers throughout Time

Athletes Who Opened Doors for Future Swimmers…in and out of the Pool

In honor of Black History Month, we take a look at some of the most influential black swimmers to ever grace the pool. Follow through time as these swimmers go from the trailblazers who broke barriers to some of today’s most promising athletes.

First…a Note on Why Representation Matters

Influential Black Swimmers

Built on the back of segregation, racism, and fear, there is a fundamental inequality within swimming. To this day, black children from the ages of five to nineteen are nearly six times more likely to drown than white children of comparable ages.

This is part of why positive representation in film and other media is so profound.

“If you have never seen the 2007 movie Pride, you should,” said WeAquatics operation manager Sidney Horton. “Consider watching it from the perspective of a young black swimmer who has never seen themself in their sport represented in the media.”

Learn more about the real-life story behind the inspirational film.

14 Black Swimmers Who Inspired and Triumphed

1. Pauline Jackson

Black Swimmers Who Inspired

Source: Newspapers.com

    • Marathon swimmer in the 1920s

Notable Accomplishments:

    • Open-water swimmer who broke barriers across two fronts: race and gender.
    • Established a successful professional swimming career throughout the 1920s.
    • Attempted the Catalina Channel (1927), widely considered one of the most challenging swimming marathons. 


2. Charles “Charlie the Tuna” Chapman


Image source: usaswimming.org

    • Born 1954

Notable Accomplishments:

    • Became the first African American swimmer to successfully cross the English Channel (1981).
    • Earned a world record (1988) for swimming around the island of Manhattan in under nine and a half hours.
    • Performed butterfly swims around Alcatraz Island and from Alcatraz to Aquatic Park.


3. Enith Brigitha


Image source: usaswimming.org

    • Born 1955

Notable Accomplishments:

    • First African woman (she was Curacao born) to compete in the Olympic Games.
    • First black woman to win an Olympic swimming medal.
    • Two-time Olympic competitor (Munich in 1972 and Montreal in 1976).
    • Won two Olympic bronze medals.
    • Throughout her career, held five world records. 
    • Was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2015.


4. Fred Evans 

fred evans black swimmer

Image source: usaswimming.org

    • Born 1956

Notable Accomplishments:

    • First African American swimmer to win a collegiate swimming championship (100-yard breaststroke in 1975).
    • Three-time national champion (NCAA Division II) in the 100-yard breaststroke.
    • National record holder in 100-yard breaststroke from 1975 to 1977.


5. Chris Silva

Chris Silva Influential Black Swimmer

Image source: usaswimming.org

    • Born 1962

Notable Accomplishments:

    • All-American swim sprinter at UCLA (1982 to 1984).
    • First African American to qualify for the US Olympic swim team (1984).
    • First African American to hold a US swim record.


6. Anthony Nesty

positive black representation

Image source: usaswimming.org

    • Born 1967

Notable Accomplishments:

    • Took an Olympic gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly (1988), edging out favorite Matt Biondi by .01 seconds.
    • Became the first black male athlete to secure an individual Olympic medal.
    • Received sixteen All-American honors as a University of Florida swimmer.
    • Named assistant coach for the US men’s Olympic swim team.


7. Maritza Correia McClendon

maritza correia US Olympic swim team

Image source: swimswam.com

    • Born 1981

Notable Accomplishments:

    • Three-time world champion.
    • Two-time Pan-American champion.
    • First African American female to compete on the US Olympic swim team and medal.
    • First African American to secure both an American swim record and world swim record.
    • Earned an Olympic silver medal (2004).


8. Cullen Jones

black swimmer cullen jones

Image source: swimswam.com

    • Born 1984

Notable Accomplishments:

    • Part of the American team that holds the world record for the 4 x 100-meter freestyle.
    • Won one Olympic gold (2008), as well as two Olympic silver medals and another gold (2012).


9. Alia Atkinson

Jamaican swimmer Alia Atkinson

Image source: jamaica.loopnews.com

    • Born 1988

Notable Accomplishments:

    • Jamaican-born five-time Olympian.
    • Enjoyed a career that spanned nineteen years (2003 to 2021).
    • Holder of two short-course world records in breaststroke.


10. Natalie Hinds

black swimmer Natalie Hinds

Image source: swimmingworldmagazine.com

    • Born 1993

Notable Accomplishments:

    • SEC freshman of the year (2013).
    • Twenty-time All-American.
    • Hinds, Simone Manuel, and Lia Neal (three black swimmers) famously swept the 2015 Women’s Division I NCAA Championship in a single event.
    • Took one bronze medal at the 2020 Olympic games.


11. Lia Neal

Olympic swimmer Lia Neal

Image Source: swimmingworldmagazine.com

    • Born 1995

Notable Accomplishments:

    • Debuted at the 2012 summer Olympics, taking one bronze medal.
    • Earned an Olympic silver medal in 2016.
    • Eight-time Pac-12 champion.
    • Nine-time NCAA champion.


12. Simone Manuel

olympic swimmer simone Manuel

Image source: simonemanuel.co

    • Born 1996

Notable Accomplishments:

    • Debuted at the 2016 Olympics, taking home two gold medals and two silver medals.
    • Earned one Olympic bronze (2020).
    • Holds three world swimming records.
    • Six-time individual NCAA champion.
    • Recognized in her senior year as the best US female swimmer, as well as best overall female collegiate athlete.


13. Alice Dearing

Inspirational black swimmer Alice Dearing

Image Source: wsportsalliance.com

    • Born 1997

Notable Accomplishments:

    • Specialist in open-water events.
    • Qualified to represent Great Britain at the Olympic games (2020).
    • Only the third black swimmer to represent Great Britain competitively. 


14. Reece Whitley

Reece Whitley black swimmer

Image source: swimswam.com

    • Born 2000

Notable Accomplishments:

    • Named SportsKid of the Year in 2015 (Sports Illustrated).
    • Earned the title of Pac-12 men’s swimming freshman of the year (2019).
    • Broke his first age-group national record in 2012.

Can’t Get Enough Swimming History?

If you’re interested in learning even more about significant figures in the world of swimming, make sure to check out this roundup of the twelve most influential swimmers of all time.

Is Your Child’s Name the Next on This List?

Is your child the next swimmer to set a world record? Win Olympic gold? Reach unprecedented heights in the pool?

Every future trailblazer starts somewhere. Maybe your child’s journey begins at a WeAquatics pool!

Check out our available DMV swim lessons today.