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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

UA swimmer looks to be role model

Step onto the pool deck at Hillenbrand Aquatic Center during practice or at a meet, and something stands out. It’s not the list of Wildcat-bred Olympians, which grows every four years. Nor is it the state-of-the-art diving platform, or the number of NCAA champions.

As a fan sitting behind me put it, “They have a black guy on the team.”

That black guy is Giles Smith, a sophomore from Baltimore, who’s having quite the year so far.

When most people think of swimmers, their initial thoughts go straight to Michael Phelps or Arizona’s own Amanda Beard. Both are accomplished and renowned Olympic athletes. Both are also white.

Swimming is one of many smaller sports like golf, tennis and lacrosse that are frequently overlooked by black athletes. I was raised in a pretty diverse part of Los Angeles, and still, most of the images of athletes I saw were of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and from my Minnesota Vikings-loving father, Randy Moss and Daunte Culpepper.

My neighbors, friends, classmates and I were all involved from an early age in the Big Three — football, basketball and baseball. We took the time to learn sports like swimming and tennis but only as recreation. We had no one to look up to in other sports that we could compare to ourselves.

That did not stop Smith, who has been swimming since the age of 6. Without a black role model, the encouragement to keep swimming started at home, with his parents.

“It was pretty easy to get my parents into it at a young age,” Smith said. “I won my first race, and ever since then my dad was like, ‘Wow, maybe you can keep going with this, maybe you can get a college scholarship.’ Just a wild dream, but I guess his wild dreams came true.

“They’ve been my biggest supporters,” Smith added. “They’re into swimming as well as anyone else.”

Earl Woods and Richard Williams also figured prominently into their children’s loves of sports considered outside of the “norm” for black athletes. Woods and Williams went on to coach and raise some of the most successful black athletes of our generation in Tiger Woods, the former top-ranked golfer in the world, and Venus and Serena Williams, two of the world’s best tennis players.

The list of Smith’s role models — after his parents — is very short. His parents have always supported and encouraged him to succeed, but one name did stand out to Giles as a young boy.

“My athletic role model growing up was Kobe Bryant, I guess,” Smith laughed. “There were no real swimmers to look up to growing up that was an African-American male. Instead, I gravitated to my parents for support.”

Smith, who swam on the undefeated men’s 400y freestyle relay team and the men’s 200y medley relay this year, has the second fastest time in the country in the men’s 100y butterfly event. He is the perfect antidote to the lack of role models in lesser recognized sports for black children.

“I think it is really needed,” Smith said. “When most young black kids think of athletes, they think of basketball, football and track. And I just want to show them that it can be done, and they can be just as good as anybody else, no matter what their race.”

Swimming is usually an afterthought in many people’s minds until the Olympics ramp up. But even when the Olympics roll around, black swimmers are not visible.

Giles Smith is making waves in the Hillenbrand Aquatic Center, and he is looking to be more than just “the black guy.”

— Cameron Moon is a pre-journalism junior. He can be reached at sports@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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