By Shirley Hawkins
LOS ANGELES — Jamal Hill had a simple reason for starting his Swim Up Hill nonprofit in 2020.
He wanted to reduce the number of minority children who lost their lives due to drowning every year.
“There is a disproportionately high accidental drowning rate among people of color because they have not been taught how to swim,” said Hill, 27, an Inglewood native and a Paralympic swimmer who won a Bronze medal at the Tokyo Paralympic Games last year.
“Public entities did not build pools in Black and brown communities for decades due to racism, segregation and redlining that were completely legal and enacted by the government,” Hill said. “Pools were just not available in inner-city neighborhoods.”
“The Swim Uphill’s Foundation goal is to teach one million people how to swim by 2028,” said Hill, a gifted athlete who excelled not only in swimming, but in football, baseball and basketball while in school. “Our target demographic is school-aged children between 10 and 12 years old.”
Hill, who has been swimming since he was 10 months old, credits his mother for first introducing him to the water. He loved jumping into the pool and joined the swim team when he was only 6.
“My mother was never allowed to swim so she decided that I would learn how to swim when I was just a baby,” Hill said. “She enrolled me in the ‘Mommy and Me’ program when I was very young.”
Hill is used to overcoming obstacles. He was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie Tooth disease at age 10, a hereditary motor and sensory disease that attacks the nervous system. The disease eventually caused Hill to experience a state of full body paralysis. With his parents’ love and support, Hill relearned how to walk. They also encouraged him to get back into sports.
Hill attempted to hide his disability for years, even though his goal was to travel to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and capture a medal.
His swimming coach, Wilma Wong, noticed how Hill routinely pulled himself out of the pool without using his legs. It reminded her of how her students with cerebral palsy exited the pool. She suggested that Hill enter the Olympics as a paralympian, something Hill struggled to accept.
“I was offended, but I finally came to terms with my disability after 12 years living in secrecy and a certain amount of shame,” Hill admitted.
He entered the paralympic competition and won a bronze medal in the 50-meter freestyle in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics, that were delayed until last summer because of the pandemic.
Returning to the states, HIll decided that he wanted to devote his life to helping people conquer their fear of the water on a global scale. He dropped out of college in his junior year to start the Swim Up Foundation.
He said he has developed an innovative technique that teaches people how to swim in five hours.
“The first thing we do for people who have this fear is to help them to get rid of their post-traumatic stress disorder when faced with getting into the water,” he said.
His method involves pouring water into a small bowl and filling two plastic tubs with water.
“I teach them how to breathe while dipping their face into a bowl and how to move their arms in the plastic tubs so that they can move forward,” said Hill, who teaches this method while the person is still on land.
“Getting into the pool for some people is overwhelming and it doesn’t matter whether they are Black, brown or white,” he added. “We teach them how to time their arms with their head so that they can breathe and move at the same time. We work through a lot of their fears while they are on land to increase their comfort and trust. By the time they get into the pool, they feel comfortable.”
Hill has expanded his organization to teach swimming education not only in urban cities but internationally as well. With his foundation receiving grants as well as funds from donors, he is frequently invited to teach swimming overseas.
Hill recently traveled to Monte Carlo and Medellin, Columbia, to teach swimming techniques to youths enrolled in swimming clubs. In the next several months, his plans include traveling to Lisbon, Portugal as well as to northern Africa, South America and several European countries to teach swimming to young people.
One of the students that Hill taught how to swim was actor Terry Crews, the host of “America’s Got Talent.”
“Terry posted a confession on social media that he didn’t know how to swim,” Hill said. “He said he almost drowned three times. Our foundation contacted Terry and taught him how to swim in five hours.”
Hill said that once he teaches youths his swimming technique, they become confident.
“Some of the youths want to test me by challenging me to race in the pool or by announcing that they too plan to swim in the Olympics one day,” he said with a laugh.
Hill has ambitious plans for his organization.
“Five years from now I want the Swim Uphill Foundation to be one of the preeminent programs to establish programs on every major continent,” he said.
Asked why he named his nonprofit the Swim Uphill Foundation, he observed, “My last name is Hill and it represents a movement for anyone who has had to overcome an obstacle. You must not be afraid to go against the grain in order to be great.”
The Swim Uphill Foundation’s website is swimuphill.org.
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at email@example.com.