In the series, Sports Illustrated and Empower Onyx shine a spotlight on the diverse journeys of black women in sports – from veteran athletes to rising stars, coaches, executives and more. Elle-evate: 100 Influential Black Women in Sport.
Black People Will Swim has a relatively simple mission: “Crush the stereotype that black people don’t swim.” This statement is proudly proclaimed throughout the Long Island-based company’s website. And for Paulana Lamonier, the company’s founder and CEO, her swimming journey began as a child when her mother enrolled her and her sisters in a local swimming program to keep them busy.
In 2009, while enrolling at CUNY York College, Lamonier was looking for an opportunity to get some exercise and she decided to get back into swimming. For her, that meant relearning how to swim. With the support and encouragement of coaches, her passion for swimming was sparked. After honing her skills in the pool, she joined her college swim team and, inspired by her college coach, Lamonier became a swim coach herself. “My college coach also had a swim club,” says Lamonier. “Seeing firsthand the entrepreneurship of a black coach with a 50-man team in a predominantly white sport gave me an opportunity to see what’s possible.”
As a black swimmer and coach, Lamonier quickly realized that racial disparities in participating in swimming were extreme. According to a recent study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis, 64% of black children cannot swim; 65% of black kids would like to swim more than they do; and 78% of black parents have little or no swimming ability, increasing the likelihood that their children will not have good swimming skills. Black children and their parents are also three times more afraid of drowning than white children and parents.
Motivated by her experience and fed up with stereotypes and statistics, Lamonier set about improving those statistics and Black People Will Swim was born.
A core component of Black People Will Swim is a mission-driven acronym, FACE: Fun. Awareness. community. Education. Training goes beyond learning and perfecting strokes to include everything from proper hair care to rescue training and the next steps in a swimmer’s journey. “For us, education is our roots and our priority [Black people] about the story and enlightening them on how to save their lives,” says Lamonier.
For the participants in the annual BPWS summer courses, the journey begins with a promise to themselves that they can and will learn to swim with the BPWS team as their responsible partner. For Lamonier’s small team of five, it all starts with finding a suitable location, which is made increasingly difficult by the global pandemic. For now, they are operating out of a private home and will be teaching nearly 80 people to swim over the summer, a significant increase from the 60 people who learned to swim last summer. Swimming can also be expensive, adding another deterrent to those looking to learn. BPWS removes this barrier by offering opportunities for volunteers in exchange for tuition.
“They learn to swim. If they swim very well, we help them become a certified swimming instructor,” says Lamonier. “We would pay for this certification and they will work those hours. then we pay them. It’s really important to create that pipeline because there’s a disproportionate number of black people who aren’t swim instructors. Lamonier and her “small but mighty” team are currently working to build this instructor pipeline and become a non-profit organization to offer additional free services.
While Lamonier is dedicated to building a community of black swimmers, she is also a successful multimedia journalist who has written for publications such as forbes, Fast company, BEINGS, complex, Shondaland, as well as profiling well-known celebrities, athletes and business leaders. Her inquisitive nature has made her grow both as an athlete and as an entrepreneur. “As a journalist, when you tell stories, you have to ask the right questions,” she says. “This is information that the public needs to know. The same goes for swimming with the right tools, skills and resources, by asking them the right questions and knowing how we can better serve them.”
Lamonier currently serves as a social media strategist at the New York Institute of Technology, where she organized the university’s first social media ambassador program, which aimed to prioritize a student-centric perspective for prospective students and use her multimedia experience to several successful New York Tech podcasts.
The young entrepreneur’s schedule keeps her busy, but she’s busy trying not to compete with anyone but herself. For now, her main focus is on completing a successful summer program with new swimmers, but she looks forward to the day when Black People Will Swim will have their own facility to further grow the community. “[My goal is] We make sure our customers and community have a great swimming experience and learn to swim,” says Lamonier. “I would love it if we were the first black-owned swimming facility on Long Island.”
Danielle Bryant is a contributor for Strengthen Onyxa diverse, multi-channel platform that celebrates the stories and transformative power of sport for black women and girls.