Who says Black girls don't Swim? The Wright Sisters are giving us LIFE!
The Wright sisters smash stereotypes as Black swimmers who competed at the collegiate level.
It’s rare to find a family that has one award winning swimmer in their midst. The Wright family can proudly claim three! Gia Wright, Czamile (Wright) Chrisp, and Kiersten Wright have created a beautiful legacy of not only swimmers, but swimmers who have proudly attended and swam for a HBCU, North Carolina A&T State University. Too many times we have heard and abided by the stereotypes that Black people don’t swim. There is some truth and historical context to that stereotype. For one, segregated pools didn’t grant access to Black people and this has created generations of Black people who don’t know how to swim. According to USA Swimming, 70% of African Americans cannot swim. The Wright sisters are out to change that with their platform, W3 Swim.
When did you start swimming?
Gia: When I was seven or eight years old, I jumped into a swimming pool during my cousin's swim lesson. At the time I didn't know how to swim and nearly drowned. Thankfully, the lifeguard who was teaching the lessons rescued me. After I learned how to swim my sisters learned as well. My dad was really instrumental in teaching us as he is a high school teacher. We spent all summer playing at the pool with him. It was really a combination of him teaching, playing in the pool every day, and being around other children that swim. Eventually we had what you could call formal lessons.
Czamille: Each of us will have a different story. I do not remember learning how to swim, but I do know that my father had a lot to do with teaching me around five or six years old. We all started swimming because of Gia's journey with swimming. When I first started swimming, I did not like it. I did not like the pool or getting wet. When you're underwater you are not breathing. It seemed intimidating and scary. Later it got better, it was something that I grew to love.
Kiersten: I have no recollection of how I learned how to swim. I started the youngest and the earliest memories I do have are actually demonstrating during the lessons. I was the little guinea pig because they knew I was so comfortable from seeing my sisters and I wanted to be a part of it all. They're like, “Okay, we'll have her do this, kick your feet, blow bubbles, jump in!” And I was ready! I already knew I could do it because I saw them doing it. That made my experience a lot easier. It also made it fun for me when I first started learning. I think that with kids it helps when you have examples of others when it comes to learning how to swim. I will say that most of the people that taught us were African American.
What was it like swimming all the time but also trying to manage your hair? It's an impossible task to find the best swim cap to keep your hair dry.
Czamille: We were concerned about our hair as small children, maybe not as much because our mom did our hair. At around nine or ten I wanted to start doing my own hair. I begged my mom to give me a relaxer so that would be easier for me to do my hair. That's what I thought that I needed to be able to do to manage my hair myself. Swimming is a predominantly white sport. Their hair is typically flat, straight, and very easy to manage, while I thought that my natural hair was not as easy to manage. That is what I saw. It was hard sometimes, because as a Black swimmer, you don't get to get out of the pool and just go somewhere. Your hair is in a totally different situation and the swim cap did not keep it dry. There were a lot of challenges with hair, even as a young child. The challenges continued to grow for me even more as I started to get older and be more conscious of my appearance.
Gia: It was just constant experimentation. When we were younger, like elementary age, our mom would braid our hair down, no extensions were used. She would braid our hair into these little styles and that was really helpful. Because we were swimming, the braids didn't last as long. We would have frizzy braids from time to time. As you get older you don't really want that look. We tried relaxers and then tried braided extensions. Braided extensions are extremely heavy to wear in the water when swimming. Then you have to deal with a mildew-like smell if you don't clean them properly. By the time we got to high school, you wanted to go to school and look cute. You're trying to do your hair but swimming just transforms it completely. When we swam in college some of our teammates were wearing extensions in the water. I was surprised to hear how much money they were spending to wear the extensions. Like $300 to $400 to use hair that would be conducive to this chlorinated environment! They had to spend real money because they were going in and out of the pool and having to wash the hair every day. You want to look presentable.
Kiersten: I was lucky enough to have friends that did box braids and Senegalese twists. I was always hitting them up like “Hey, can you do my hair please?” During the high school season I always had my hair braided but I also had a relaxer. Having a relaxer in and trying to keep it braided was just a lot. As a high school kid, I was just trying to keep up with the trends and be cute. When I first went to school I would literally wash and blow dry my hair straight every single day after practice. It was a lot on my hair and I saw the difference in it too, my hair started to break off. Having other Black woman on the team with me who were rocking their natural look, whether it was short or long was awesome! Once I got a taste of the “all natural woman”, I was like snip snip, and did the big chop. I ended up cutting all of my hair off and it was probably the best thing I ever did.
What was your experience like swimming for a HBCU?
Czamille: For a lack of a better term, it was everything! From your confidence, to the support, to the empathy it was like we understood almost everything about each other besides just our personal lives. We understood being Black women, all of us together. And we understood the journey that we took from children to middle school to high school to college. We understood what we all went through to get to the collegiate level. When I was swimming in college at North Carolina A&T State University - Aggie Pride! - there was Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU) and there was Howard University. And when FAMU, Howard and A&T went to a conference meet for the entire collegiate swimming association we were together. We swam on different teams, but we were together and I wish I had the picture of all three of our teams together at the meet because everyone else was predominantly white. And here we were, coming together like we do when you are the minority in the group. I loved that experience. I hold it dear to my heart and it helps me to continue to grow as a Black woman.
Gia: During my recruiting process, I visited some schools that were predominantly white. This was the majority when going through the recruiting process for the sport of swimming. I had never heard of North Carolina A&T. Growing up for me it was just either Howard or FAMU because they were the only other schools I had heard about with swimming. On my trip I started asking myself questions like, “Who am I going to be when I'm done swimming? How am I going to grow to be the productive Black woman that I want to become if the people in my environment may not understand my struggle? Or even simple things like getting done with a swim meet and needing a little extra time to pull myself together and do my hair before dinner. Those little things make a huge difference.” Growing up in South Florida, the teams that I swam with were predominantly white, hundreds of swimmers once we all transitioned to the year round swimming arena. Going to A&T just meant everything. Meeting girls from different parts of the country, all the way from the west coast to northern states. These girls had very similar experiences and struggles and it was priceless. You can not put a value on that because it truly just helped with the all around person. I'm really thankful to have that experience with other Black women. That was the main reason why I chose A&T. If I went to a predominately white institution (PWI), I could have achieved certain time standards, I would have had more resources, in terms of athleticism. I would have had multiple coaches. That did not matter when it came down to who I was going to be upon graduating.
Kiersten: My experience at A&T was swimming with other women that were just like me, they're still my best friends today. We laugh and talk about everything that happened while we were swimming and outside of the pool. I've come to realize that the women that I swam with, were my only friends that could really 100% relate. I'm not saying that my other friends don't matter. But you don't have those same experiences. Those late nights where you're up trying to finish studying and you still have to get up for 5 am practice and then weight training, and then practice in the afternoon and go into classes in between. That's a lot, you need those people that can help you through that process. Me being the youngest and having both of my sisters graduate from A&T, I am super proud of them.
How amazing would it have been to have a waterproof swim cap back then?
Czamille: Yes! Mostly for our young girls that are swimming. We’ve said 100 times that you can't ignore the fact that you want to look good when you get out of the pool. And of course, you’re going to smush your hair with the cap but you're not going to be blow drying and straightening and all this other stuff. You can at least keep it dry, and protect your hair from all the water and the chlorine. I so wish that I was natural when I was younger because I wouldn't have been through so much. And goodness knows if my cap kept my hair dry and I wasn't natural, I still wouldn't have been through so much.
Gia: I agree with Czamile, it would be an absolute game changer. I think that would make a huge difference. Not even just for Black women but for the sport of swimming in general. Women of other ethnicities still struggle with doing their hair. I know that blonde women’s hair tends to turn green if it's impacted with chlorine. Chlorine can be harmful to your hair, and sometimes just the simple fact of having to use the shampoos and conditioners almost every day. You're using those products way more frequently. I used to see girls in the locker room with huge conditioner bottles that they would use within a month’s time. For most people it would take months and months to go through that same bottle. It would definitely be a game changer, it would probably save people a lot of money on products.
Kiersten: Growing up and working a lot with children and their parents, I saw bandanas, shower caps, and saran wrap being used in order to keep the kids hair intact. They would put a swim cap on top of these products and try every single trick in the book. Once your head goes straight underwater, you're hair is going to get wet. It's going to frizz and your hairstyle unfortunately is going to be affected. People are very interested in how to keep their hair dry. If there was a cap developed that kept people's hair dry, I'm telling you, not only African Americans, anybody that swims will use it.
Tell us about your platform, W3 Swim!
Czamille: I'm so glad that you are allowing us to talk about that a little bit. It is “W3” and then “Swim”. And we actually call it "We swim". The "W" is for our last name, “Wright”, before I got married. There's three of us, three sisters. We have started out as a podcast and have episodes on Spotify and Apple podcast. We also have accounts on Instagram and Facebook. It all came from our experience with swimming and what we’ve seen in the Black community. That it's not considered a necessity but is truly a life skill that everybody needs. Gia actually spearheaded everything and got us roped into her vision. Once we started to talk through it a little bit more, we all came to the conclusion that we have an important story to share and that it is important for us to put it out there so that we can help people that look like we do.
Gia: Years have passed and I still wasn’t seeing any progression. I still coach swimming and don't see many Black swimmers. It’s much less than what I was expecting by now. The first time I stepped on a pool deck to compete with a year round team I was the only Black girl on my team out of hundreds of swimmers. At that moment in time, I was thinking, “Okay, well, I'm going to stick with this. And I'm sure, as I get older, this is going to change.” But in reality, some ways it has changed, but still only, like 1% of the population are year round, Black competitive swimmers. Not only that, but then you also look at coaches. This looks very different in a summer league arena. But for the year round arena, it's still not as diverse as I would love to see it. It just kept plaguing my mind, and I was like this has to change. More of us need to see that there's opportunity here. There's so much that we miss out on because we don't want to get our hair wet. It's a crazy thought to me, I mean, swimming paid our way through school. Swimming provides for us financially as a source for our living. I've been able to teach everybody in my family to swim, we're saving lives with swimming and all this could be dismissed because we don't want to get our hair wet? That to me can't be the reason. So I really felt like this is something that we needed to talk about, not enough of us use our voices, particularly as women.
Kiersten: To add on a little bit about W3 Swim, the three of us all have this life outside of just being sisters. All three of us are pieces of a puzzle. We want to keep that puzzle together and share our stories and our different experiences. As W3 Swim grows, it's going to bring more people in and together. So that way, that puzzle gets bigger and that's just gonna be awesome. COVID sucks, I cannot wait until we can just do our thing and really be out there. At the same time, if it wasn't for the fact that all of us had to be at home with our minds wandering then W3 Swim probably wouldn’t have even come about. We are on Instagram under W3 Swim, "W-E Swim". We're also on Facebook. Like Czamile said earlier, you can listen to us on Spotify and Apple podcasts. We’re open if you people need to learn more information. Feel free to reach out if you need to ask us something because you think you can relate to one of us. Hit us up, any question can be asked and you can get answers.
You can find W3 Swim on Instagram