Known for producing many of the revered leaders of Black America, Howard University is now producing some of the most revered college swimmers in the nation.
Howard University in Washington, D.C is affectionately known as the mecca of Historically Black Colleges of Universities (HBCUs).
Now, Howard is staking its claim as the mecca for HBCU swimming, with hip-hop sounds providing the soundtrack for one of college sports’ hottest tickets.
Coach Nic Askew, 44, said, “Nobody in America can offer what we have in our pool. Where else are you going to see this?”
Throughout its existence, Howard has garnered the reputation of producing doctors, lawyers, judges, entertainment moguls and even America’s first woman (and person of color) to so serve as U.S. vice president.
Nevertheless, nowadays people are clamoring to the university to see Bison athletes excel in the swimming pool.
What makes this phenomenon even more impressive is that stereotypically Black Americans have not garnered much fame from swimming, except for Olympic stars like Cullen Jones and Simone Manuel.
Furthermore, Black Americans have a turbulent history when it comes to segregation and discrimination at public and private pools throughout the country, with some racist even pouring acid into pools occupied by Black swimmers.
But in 2023, over 1,000 spectators filled Howard’s swimming facility Burr Gymnasium for their season opener against crosstown rival, Georgetown University.
The number of fans attending the first swim meet (estimated at 1,200 attendees) will probably be the largest audience to watch a collegiate swim meet in person this school year.
The disc jockey kept the crowd excited on the ones and twos.
A live stream of the meet could be viewed for those blessed enough to get into the Splash Lounge VIP section of the venue.
And as if the swim meet is the homecoming football game or a basketball game against rival Morgan State University, the Bison dance team, rocking all black uniforms, entertained the fans throughout the competition.
When Askew works his way through the crowd of a swimming competition, he is treated like a rockstar with handshakes, hugs and well wishes from the Bison faithful.
Robert Sanchez of Sports Illustrated reported, “It’s hard for (Askew) not to feel a swell of pride with each handshake and hug and pat on the back as he moves through the crowd. Since taking over this once-moribund program eight years ago, the former Howard swimmer has created arguably the most electric collegiate swimming environment in the U.S. He’s pulled recruits from across the country, from Canada to the Caribbean, and developed a team on the cusp of winning the Northeast Conference title, which would be its first banner in more than 30 years—the nation’s only historically Black school with a swim program now showing out in this predominantly White, country club sport.”
Sanchez does not think that a mid-major college could ever compete for national championships on the level of powerhouses like University of Texas, Stanford University and University of Virginia.
But when it comes to attendance, H.U. (you know) is already swimming laps around its competition from predominantly White institutions, whose fanbase is often limited to the families of the swimmers.
And seeing that Howard is the mecca for HBCUs, the traditional handshake line simply does not have the requisite flavor to impress the culture.
Instead, swimmers line the pool and dance to Fast Life Yungstaz’s hit rap song, “Swag Surfin’.”
And although both the men’s and women’s team lost their dual meets to Georgetown, the positive attitude that has made Bison swimming such a force remained intact thanks to Askew.
Speaking about his former college teammate Askew, assistant coach Salim King said, “He always wants to know what’s next. And he’s bringing you with him.”
Furthermore, Askew wants to bring more Black people into a sport that has often alluded them.
Askew added, “This is about our mission as a university and the message we want to send as an HBCU. This isn’t a bunch of Black people in a pool; it’s young Black men and women succeeding in a sport that, for years, has shut them out of this experience.”
When Askew took over the helm at Howard, three other HBCUs had swimming programs.
Now, only Howard’s team remains active.
Askew makes sure his players know the history of Black swimmers and Black swim teams.
“There’s a social element that’s emphasized in every part of what we do as a school, and our swim program fits that larger goal,” said Wayne A.I. Frederick, Howard University’s president. “It’s about going into a wider world, seeing the inequities and closing them down.”
Sanchez reported, “Howard’s swimmers know that European conquerors in the 15thcentury found thriving swimming cultures in West African coastal villages, that chattel slavery in the New World slowly robbed an entire race of its connection to water, that the Jim Crow South—and racism in the North—later prevented Black access to pools across the U.S., and that Black Americans today are 5.5 times more likely to drown than White ones.”
Miriam Lynch, who serves as a Howard volunteer assistant, said, “We were naturally in the water, and then that was taken from us. Our team is on the front line of change.”
Sports Illustrated reported, “USA Swimming estimates that less than 1.5% of the country’s 295,078 competitive swimmers are Black. Within the college ranks, at all levels, that number is just 2%…Roughly one-third of America’s Black college swimmers are on Howard’s campus—which also means there’s a good chance that, every year, dozens of college swim coaches never speak to a single Black swimmer.”