CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For most of her life, Tara Johnson-Drayton stayed on the pool deck, watching others play in the water below. Limited access to pools and her brother’s drowning were just a few of the reasons she never learned to swim.
“My mom never learned, her mom never learned, none of her siblings learned to swim,” she said.
Johnson-Drayton, who is African American, isn’t alone.
In part because of historic institutional racism, 64 percent of African American children have no or low swimming ability, according to a 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation. That’s compared to 45 percent of Hispanic kids and 40 percent of white kids.
Understanding the importance of water safety, Johnson-Drayton sent her three kids to swim lessons, but she still never put a toe in the water.
That was until last December, when she discovered the Mahogany Mermaids — a swim team based in Charlotte geared toward more mature African American swimmers. The team not only gives women of color a safe place to swim; for some it’s helping their swimming fears float away.
Johnson-Drayton said she had never heard of an African American swimming group for adults. “So when I heard of the Mahogany Mermaids I was like, I want to be a part of that,” she said.
Now, for Johnson-Drayton, that fear of the water has been replaced with joy. At the age of 49, she’s learned to swim and become a competitive swimmer.
The team is sanctioned by United States Masters Swimming — the national governing body overseeing programs for swimming adults.
Johnson-Drayton tries to swim several days a week, but that takes extraordinary dedication because she suffers from extreme motion sickness while swimming.
“My head is spinning, and it's just awful. And who would think that you get motions like this in the water?” she said.
Thanks to medication, she’s able to swim. And having a demanding coach like Nadine Ford is also crucial to her success. “She does not accept failure,” Johnson-Drayton said.
Ford started the Mahogany Mermaids in 2014, when she recruited some friends so she wouldn’t have to work out by herself. Six years later, there are now more than 40 women on the team.
“Nadine is like one of those rare gems. She’s tough around the edges, but she's sweet as can be inside,” Johnson-Drayton said.
Ford, who admits she’s not a fan of socializing, said she has a big ego and likes telling people what to do. “I’m the center of their universe. Didn’t they tell you that?” she said with a laugh.
During practice, Ford walks the deck, giving her swimmers stroke advice and tips. She is helping beginners do something they might have never thought possible: swim with grace and ease, and enjoy their time in the water.
While the swimmers credit Ford for their success, the coach says it’s not about her.
“It’s about them,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons they keep coming is they know they have it in them. They just need somebody to pull it out. That's what I do.” Ford likes to keep the chemistry in Mahogany Mermaids special, so in order to join, you have to be invited.
“How often do you see this? You don't ever see Black women swimming in a pool together,” said experienced swimmer and Mahogany Mermaid Nashira Waldron. A swimmer all her life, Waldron credits Ford for creating a safe atmosphere for African American women.
“We have a lot of camaraderie. We love each other so much. There’s no body shaming,” she said.
Johnson-Drayton agreed, adding that her teammates have helped her in and out of the water. “African American women have larger hair so the Mermaids tell you where you can buy the best fitting swim caps and find swim suits that fit our bodies,” she said.
And while Covid-19 forced the pool to close for months, it reopened in August. And the women who form the Mahogany Mermaids were happy to be back in the water.
“It was really unfortunate,” Waldron said of the closure, “but we’re blessed to be here now.”
Johnson-Drayton said she’s thankful Ford and the Mahogany Mermaids helped her overcome her fears in the water.
“It’s never too late to learn to swim,” she said.
Never a team to be treading water, the Mahogany Mermaids are always progressive. In early November, they allowed the first Mermen to join the team.