Less than a week after the January 6th terrorist attacks on the Capitol, swimming website Swimswam broke the news of white swimmer Klete Keller’s active participation. Multiple stories ensued across media outlets, including newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. In a statement, USA Swimming – the sport’s governing body – stated that it “strongly condemns the unlawful actions” and that Keller’s actions “in no way represent the values or mission of USA Swimming,” without explicitly mentioning racism or white supremacy. Several media analyses – including those published by Swimming World as well as The Washington Post and even Pat Forde’s recent Sports Illustrated piece – used white swimmers and coaches’ statements to individualize and explain away Keller’s actions by pointing to what we previously knew about him: he was a great swimmer who lost his way after retiring, suffered from homelessness and other mental health issues before putting his life together again, only to “fall” in his path to join political extremism.
These portrayals make his actions on January 6 an anomaly despite his apparently well-known conservative political views that had been sliding further to the right. In their repeated absence of discussing race, white members of the swimming community and media reports exemplify how white privilege, whiteness, and white supremacy operate. They silence the racism of Keller’s actions and ignore how his white supremacy is part and parcel of US swimming culture rather than an aberration.
We come to this project as white people intimately tied to the sport. We were collegiate swimmers who have worked as coaches and/or swim lesson teachers, and are now scholars who study the sport. We have critiqued the sport’s media and even other swimmers and coaches for not standing up against racism in the sport. More white people need to hold the swimming community accountable for its white supremacy, so that it is not left to just Simone Manuel and other Black and Brown swimmers to do the work of making US Swimming anti-racist and inclusive.
By terrorizing the US Capitol building and Congresspeople while they were counting Electoral College votes, Keller and his terrorist collaborators were not just trying to overturn the democratic process and our election. Like majority white mobs in the past, in New Orleans in 1874 and Wilmington, NC in 1898, they actively sought to discount the votes of Black and Brown people – historically politically, socially, and economically marginalized and oppressed in our country – who played an enormous role in President Biden’s election win. Along with the privileged way in which they acted (posting on social media, bragging to friends, and wearing nametags), the terrorist attack highlights the white supremacism at the root of the January 6th events.
A cursory understanding of swimming and aquatics history illustrates the modern sport’s white supremacist foundation. Prize-winning historian Dr. Kevin Dawson has refuted the long-held stereotype that “Black people can’t swim” by exploring the historical African aquascape. When white Europeans began colonizing the West African coast, they feared the water, believing it to be unholy. In contrast, West African communities were the experts of the aquatics arena, teaching their children how to swim, canoe, and surf. Even after being brutally captured, forcibly transported across the ocean, and enslaved by our white Euro-American ancestors, enslaved Black people on colonized islands and coastal areas of the later US continued to live and work in the water often under the guise of white slaveowners. Historian Dr. Jeff Wiltse traced how public pools became sites of racial segregation by the 1920s and 1930s. The white community used pools and public beaches to violently enforce racial segregation. White lynch mobs inflicted racial trauma by attacking Black swimmers, throwing victims’ bodies into lakes and rivers as seen with Emmett Till, and even acid in pools when Black Americans were in it as seen in St. Augustine, FL in 1964.
After centuries of enduring water-based racist trauma, some Black communities responded by staying away from the water. Dr. Christienna Fryar connected this history to the recent incident in 2015 when a white police officer in Texas thrust a 14-year-old Black girl on the ground, kneeled on her back, and unholstered his gun after a white woman told the girl and her friends to “go back to their Section 8 homes.” White aquatic racism against Black communities has directly led to an ongoing public health concern as Black and Brown children drown at rates much higher than white children. And even if Black Americans do want to swim competitively, the financial and logistical barriers prevent countless people from being able to do so.
As articulated by Dr. Jules Boykoff and Dave Zirin white supremacist logics have been interconnected with the history of modern sport, the International Olympic Committee, and the Olympic Games. Almost every IOC president – from its founder, France’s Pierre de Coubertin, to the American “Avery Slavery” Avery Brundage – repeatedly espoused anti-Black racist views and policies aimed to discriminate against (if not exclude entirely) Black, Brown, and Jewish sportspeople, and for much of its history women as well as LGBTQ+ athletes.
Team USA in fact just publicly recognized some of this history in Summer 2020 in the wake of the mass ani-racist BLM protests with its brief overview of US swimming and racism, titled “The Deep End: The History of Pool Access for Black Americans & What Team USA Athletes are Doing to Get More Kids of Color into the Pool.” The piece summarized the history of pool segregation and cited Wiltse’s work, and featured Simone Manuel, Cullen Jones, Jamal Hill, and Ashleigh Johnson and the work they have done to expand pool access. Swimming World – which has done more than its fair share of apologizing for Keller’s actions to the national and global swimming community – also recognized Dawson’s history of West African aquatics and the role of Euro-American colonialism, slavery, and racism in suppressing Black aquatic activities in a short January 2020 piece.
What can we make of the contradictions between American swimming’s white supremacist foundation, the US swimming community’s inconsistent attempts to acknowledge this history, and the white apologetic messages coming from the same community and legitimized by sports media in the wake of Keller’s racist actions?
Given this brief sketch of swimming’s racialized history, we were not surprised that the Olympian who contributed to January 6’s coup attempt was a white American swimmer – and neither was at least one former teammate. The sport’s spaces (pools) and even its fastest and primary stroke (the freestyle crawl) embody its legacies of whiteness, where white interests, ideas, comfort, and well-being are prioritized and privileged. Second, whiteness and its close cousin white supremacy rely on our willful silencing of our sport’s historical and foundational racism. It is willful because both Team USA and USA Swimming have recognized aspects of this history in 2020.
Historian Christienna Fryar has recently pointed out that both governing bodies have used Cullen Jones, Simone Manuel, and other Black and Brown swimmers to lead the charge in addressing the impact of our white supremacy: both in teaching Black and Brown children how to swim and as tools to prove our supposed ‘progress’ to being an inclusive and diverse sport. To put it more directly: rather than address racism on its own, the white USA Swimming and Team USA use Black athletes to do their inclusion work for them while the participants in the sport remain overwhelmingly white. We absolutely value and admire these athletes’ work in minoritized communities: teaching swim lessons, advocating for resources, and serving as role models. Yet Simone Manuel has publicly expressed that she is exhausted of being asked to discuss inclusion and articulated that every swimmer needs to be asked about it. The organizations’ unwillingness to directly confront Keller’s white supremacy nor its deep connections to the sport which they have already, superficially recognized is an act of willful silencing and a white supremacist tactic.
Finally, sports media is complicit in this as well. It has repeatedly erased these broader structural aspects of Keller’s actions and treated his choice to take part in a white supremacist coup as an individual problem, a “fall.” They spoke to former teammates and coaches – almost all of whom were white men and some of the biggest names in the sport who to varying degrees spoke of Keller as a “decent guy” with a “great heart” who got “lost.” For instance, an open letter in Swimming World centered Keller over the Black and Brown citizens’ votes he sought to overturn on January 6th. In it, the writer positioned Keller’s arrest as a chance for personal redemption. Additionally, the writer positioned this moment as an opportunity for the overwhelmingly white sport to look inward and fix itself regarding mental health issues for individual athletes, rather than calling for a much needed interrogation of the sport’s longtime racial exclusionary practices and historic systemic racism.
This is how white supremacy operates: through ignoring whiteness and how its attendant unequal power relations privilege some and harm others. These white apologia stories make Keller into a redeemable fallen American hero rather than treat his choice to take part in the coup seriously. They actively—and harmfully to Black and Brown swimmers—turn Keller into an aberration and ignore how white supremacy is constituent of American culture and US Swimming.
Dr. Johanna Mellis is a former D1 swimmer, Assistant Professor at Ursinus College, co-host of The End of Sport podcast, and co-author of pieces for The Chronicle of Higher Ed, The Guardian, Jacobin, and more.
Dr. Matthew R. Hodler is an Assistant Professor of Sport Media and Communication at the University of Rhode Island. His recently published work includes an article on whiteness, tribal critical race theory, and legacies of Native American mascots in the Sociology of Sport Journal and another one on internet meme reactions to Colin Kaepernick’s protests in the Journal of Sport & Social Issues.
A selection of other ToM pieces on the history of racism and sport:
- Race-ing the NFL: How Anti-Black Standards Are Built into the 2015 Concussion Settlement
- Surfing for Freedom: Black Surfers and Reclaiming Cultural History in Los Angeles
- Waters of Community, Waters of Hostility: The Messy History of Urban America and the Municipal Pool
- A Dive into the Deep End: The Importance of the Swimming Pool in Southern California
- Swimming in Dysfunction: McCarren and the Long Perspective on Municipal Pools
- Say Her Name! Confronting Erasure and Rethinking Possibilities for a Democratic Future
- Diving into Integration: Sammy Lee, Historical Memory, and the Complexity of Housing Segregation in Cold War California