Summer 2018

Swimming lessons

Samuel Myers Jr. returned to competitive swimming in his 50s in order to encourage his daughter in the sport.

Samuel Myers Jr., a longtime competitive swimmer and Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, merged two of his passions—swimming and research—to study drowning rates by race. Myers found black children ages 5 to 14 are more than three times as likely to drown as white children, a disparity that surprised him. That work led to the reopening of one of the last indoor pub-lic pools in Minneapolis, increasing access to swimming instruction in a low-income area—a first step in preventing drownings.

Drowning disparities receive little attention—and little funding. How has your endowed professorship helped? 

It provides me with the opportunity to tackle difficult and complex topics that aren’t yet on the radar screen for traditional funders like the National Institutes of Health or National Science Foundation. The endowment permitted me to undertake this research, and now there’s heightened public awareness of the problem.

What are you working on now?

My current research is on American Indian drowning rates, which are the highest of any racial or ethnic group in the country. What works for reducing black drown-ing rates—increasing lifeguards, for example—might not work for reducing American Indian drowning rates because those drownings often occur in lakes and other bodies of water that typically don’t have lifeguards.

How did swimming shape your life?

My father and I participated in the father-son swim program at an inner-city YMCA in Baltimore. It wasn’t just about learning how to swim; it was about learning how to be a responsible individual, a good citizen. Later, as a competitive swimmer at Morgan State University, I spent long hours on buses with other black intellectuals. We’d discuss poverty, segregation, the war—the future of America.