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Black girl nearly disqualified from Wisconsin swim meet over ‘Black Lives Matter’ swimsuit

Leidy Gellona, 12, was brought to tears after an official said her suit violated rules by being political, her mother said.
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A 12-year-old swimmer was briefly disqualified from a competition in Wisconsin this week for wearing a homemade Black Lives Matter swimsuit, her mother said.

Sarah Lyons, of Duluth, Minnesota, said her sixth-grade daughter, Leidy Gellona, was inspired to iron the words "Black Lives Matter" onto a black swimsuit after the two discussed the death of Amir Locke, 22, a Black man fatally shot last week by Minneapolis police during a no-knock warrant.

Leidy proudly wore the swimsuit Sunday during a competition sponsored by the Duluth YMCA in nearby Superior, Wisconsin. That’s when a race official determined Leidy's swimsuit was political and against USA Swimming’s rules, Lyons said.

Leidy was the only Black competitor at the meet, Lyons said.

Lyons said that, although she was personally angry and sad, she let her daughter decide whether to change swimsuits to stay in the competition.

“She said, ‘Mom, I’m not taking this suit off,’” Lyons said. “I don’t think either one of us ever thought that she was just going to change her suit. Knowing her, I knew she was going to stand true.”

Lyons added: “That was like a piece of armor for her. I am so proud of her.”

A 12-year-old Black swimmer was nearly disqualified from a meet in Superior, Wisconsin, for wearing a Black Lives Matter swimsuit.
Leidy Gellona was nearly disqualified from a meet in Superior, Wis., for wearing a Black Lives Matter swimsuit.Courtesy Duluth NAACP

Lyons said the race official told her Leidy’s swimsuit was political, but she argued otherwise.

“I said it’s not political. This is not a political statement. Don’t read it as an organization. Read it as a person saying their life matters,” she said.

Lyons, who is a diversity officer at a college, contacted local NAACP officials and a human rights officer, she said.

Classie Dudley, the president of the Duluth branch of the NAACP, said she called the local media and gathered about 20 more people with allied groups who went to the swim meet and advocated in Leidy's behalf.

Lyons and Dudley said officials at the meet then tried to say it was not about the message on the swimsuit; rather, Leidy’s one-piece did not meet the logo standards.

But when the YMCA’s vice president showed up, Dudley said, officials quickly overturned Leidy’s disqualification.

“It was 10 minutes, and we got the disqualification reversed,” Dudley said.

And while some of the hundreds in attendance went up to the young swimmer and said they were sorry for what she was going through, Dudley said, she was disheartened because none of them fought for Leidy.

“There were officials. There were other coaches. There were parents. They came to the side and supported her and showed solidarity. But they didn’t advocate on her behalf,” Dudley said. “You can’t just say you’re about advocacy and equity. You actually have to act on it.”

Lyons said she felt the same way.

"The meet went on. The kids were swimming. And the parents were cheering. There was one person who wasn’t swimming, who was sobbing, and that was the only Black kid there,” she said.

The Duluth YMCA said in a statement that Leidy’s experience was “unfortunate.” It said the race official who disqualified Leidy was a volunteer who was removed from the competition and barred from future meets hosted by the YMCA in Duluth.

“An independent volunteer official inappropriately barred a student athlete from taking part in the meet, due to their ‘Black Lives Matter swimsuit,’ stating that it ‘went against USA Swimming’s policy of no political language,’” the statement read.

“In response to this ruling, Duluth YMCA staff swiftly disputed the claim directly with swimming officials and were in immediate contact with Duluth YMCA Leadership. The Duluth YMCA quickly overruled the decision, removed the official," the statement said.

"The Duluth YMCA is saddened that the student, their family, and teammates had to endure this unacceptable behavior. ... We know that Black Lives Matter and we will continue to work to educate ourselves, to stand against inequality, and to strive to be active allies in the ongoing fight for diversity, equity, and inclusion."

USA Swimming said Wednesday that while its rules prohibit anything other than an “insignia and/or name of the club or organization they represent” being worn by a swimmer, the swim meet Sunday was not an event sanctioned or approved by the organization. 

“As advocates and supporters of diversity in our sport, we believe it is important to support individuals in identifying approved ways to demonstrate or advocate for racial and social justice,” a USA Swimming spokesperson said in a statement. “We greatly hope this experience does not stop this young swimmer from continuing to pursue her passion for swimming.”

Lyons said the race official’s decision to disqualify her daughter was biased and that Leidy has a new perspective on such incidents.

“This isn’t just about what happened to me,” Lyons said her daughter told her. “This could happen to girls, to Black kids ... in music and sports all the time."