The death of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked outrage throughout the world, feelings that had a strong impact on players and officials within the USA Water Polo and has since cast a light on the lack of diversity and inclusion within aquatic sports.
Omar Amr, one of the first African American athletes to compete for the US Olympic water polo team, said the response from the US Olympic Committee Council immediately following Floyd’s death offered support but contradicted the experience he and other minority athletes faced playing the sport and left him “pretty angry.”
“Up until literally six months ago, you could say anything you wanted in the water,” Amr said. “Somebody would drop the N-word on me in a game and the ref had no obligation to do anything.”
Despite the organization claiming to want to help minority athletes, Amr said their words weren’t backed by action, even after he sent an outline of ideas that would help bring meaningful improvements to the sport.
Some of Amr’s ideas included a no-tolerance policy for racism, increasing social resources for disadvantaged communities and promoting water safety and pool availability within minority and inner-city populations.
“Initially, they said,‘ Yeah, that sounds great ’and when they did nothing, a bunch of us got together and decided we were going to do something, so we started the Alliance,” Amr said.
The Alliance for Diversity and Equity in Water Polo was founded to bring together a minority of members of the water polo community to develop plans and strategies to increase diversity and inclusion within the sport.
“It was therapeutic, because for the first time probably ever, minority athletes actually got together and spoke on their experiences,” Amr said. “It was really interesting to hear, because it was almost the same story.”
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Ashleigh Johnson has heard them all, including, she said, instances of Black water polo players being ejected from competition after being called the N-word because the referee said leaving them in could lead to violence.
“That’s not an acceptable approach to the situation,” Johnson said. “No matter where you stand, you’re always going to be punished for being the person who has less power.”
Racial injustice has deprived minorities of equal opportunities surrounding swimming. A lack of access to quality public pools and water safety education in minority communities has left aquatic sports predominantly white with very few people of color representing the US in the Olympics. Currently, Johnson is the only Black player on the women’s roster and Max Irving is the only Black player on the men’s team.
But while changing the way an entire sport views minority groups can prove to be a daunting task, it hasn’t stopped athletes like Amira Van Buren, captain of the Arizona State Women’s Water Polo team, from trying to make a difference on their own.
Van Buren has organized a swim-a-thon at her school the past two years that raised money for Swim Uphill, a non-profit started by Paralympic swimmer Jamal Hill aimed at providing swim education to low- and middle-income communities.
“It raises awareness to my teammates, how fortunate we are and how blessed we are to be able to play the sport that we do because some people don’t have that opportunity,” Van Buren said.
The Alliance is still developing resources and initiatives, but board member Genai Kerr, a former US Olympian and the first-ever Black American athlete to compete in the water polo world championships, said they are currently implementing a mentorship program within aquatic sports as well as trying to break down the systemic barriers keeping people of color out of important societal roles such as law and medical positions.
Kerr said he hopes the Alliance will bring “consistency and longevity” in creating a more solid support system, whether that be in sport or society.
“Having younger athletes, like Amira and Ashleigh, [they’ve] taken over the reins and kept things going, ”Kerr said. “We wanted to initiate the spark of change, but it’s kind of being executed over time.”
Those who know Johnson, widely considered the best goalkeeper in the world, praise her both for her abilities in the pool and her advocacy for the sport outside the pool.
“She’s an absolute badass,” Van Buren said. “She is a great role model and it makes me so happy to see her on that stage and how successful she is. It’s really important that we keep having people in those spaces and showing little kids, growing up, they can get there. “
Johnson said she understands the responsibilities that come with being one of the most recognizable faces within a worldwide sport and aims to promote awareness surrounding the disparities in the makeup of water polo athletes.
“I hope that a lot of young girls, a lot of young boys look at me and see for themselves and see where they could be, because I didn’t for a long time,” Johnson said.
Promoting awareness also means bringing water polo to places that have not been exposed to the sport.
According to Greg Mescall, senior director of content and broadcasting for USA Water Polo, new areas are constantly being identified as expansion locations for sports like Texas, Florida and Wisconsin.
“Texas is a big turning point for water polo,” Mescall said. “You could see if that really gains traction there, that could be the next California as far as the saturation of water polo.”
The hope is that expanding throughout the country can create a “pipeline” of athletes as “diverse and equitable as possible” compared to the one currently flowing throughout water polo.
Those like Kerr, Amr, Johnson, Van Buren, Mescall and members of the Alliance say necessary changes to aquatic sports are long overdue and can help alleviate the isolation athletes like Van Buren felt growing up in a predominantly white sport.
“My overall goal in the Alliance is to change that feeling for other athletes who do want to play,” Van Buren said. “I don’t want them to have that experience. Nobody should. ”
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