For Paulana Lamonier, swimming is an act of liberation. However, she understands that for many Black people being in the water can be intimidating. The reasons why can range from a lack of resources and access to cultural stigmas and fear. 

After re-learning how to swim in 2009 at York College, Lamonier was inspired to help others in her community feel as free in the water as she did. At the time, she was only focused on her immediate circle but that all changed in 2019. That’s when the New York native fired off a tweet about her desire to teach 30 Black people how to swim. The message struck a chord with people from all across the map, as she got inundated with hundreds of requests for lessons. This overwhelming response made it clear to Lamonier that there was a serious need for swim education within her community. That realization led her to create Black People Will Swim (BPWS), an organization designed to debunk the stereotype that Black people don’t swim by giving them the necessary skills to thrive in the water.

“It’s more so about creating a sense of security for those who may be intimidated just by a body of water in general.”

Over the course of the past two years, the organization has raised thousands of dollars through crowd-funding to rent pool facilities, swim gear, and hire staff. In addition to that, BPWS has garnered support from companies such as Adidas and American Express, as well as Complex’s B.O.S.S program, a 12-week mentorship program for minority-owned small businesses.   

With an initial goal of teaching 2,020 people how to swim, BPWS has expanded its vision to include opening a luxury aquatic facility that caters specifically to the needs of the Black community. While the on-going pandemic has forced Lamonier to shift her original timeline, she hasn’t lost focus and found creative ways to maintain momentum. Tapping into her network, she has been able to provide swimming lessons this summer at a private residence in Long Island. We recently caught up with the inspiring entrepreneur to discuss her passion for dismantling the decades-old myth that Black people can’t swim, and her vision for the future of the organization. 

BPWS Class
Image via Peteyshots by Petercov Denis


There are tons of reasons why Black people avoid swimming. What’s one of the biggest myths you’ve heard?

I had a client and she was like, “You know, I can’t swim because my bones are too dense.” Where did she hear this from? This made me realize how many people take these false and racist stereotypes as their truth.

What tactics do you use to help combat these stereotypes and ease your clients’ fears during lessons?

I ask them simple questions, like what’s happened [in their life]. And then from there, we just kind of work our way through. We start with the basics. You know, put your face in the water, breathe, and really just get them to feel comfortable. 

“It’s more so about creating a sense of security for those who may be intimidated just by a body of water in general.”

 

Aside from stereotypes, what are some of the biggest obstacles you’ve seen with getting people of color in the water?

Accessibility and affordability. Swimming is definitely an expensive sport. If you go to these swim clubs and swim teams, the starting price is $500 a month. That doesn’t include the swim caps, the merch, the swimming bag… The bathing suits are expensive as well, like $60 to $80. That’s only the practice equipment. What about maintaining a pool? That’s why we’re raising money because people don’t factor in how much it costs to not only get a pool but also to maintain it.

Where did the idea to create your own swim facility come from?

I saw the vision of BPWS becoming an Olympic-sized pool after visiting a luxury gym in Brooklyn, NY. After that visit, I saw what was possible and if people with higher incomes can have an Olympic-sized pool, why can’t an organization like Black People Will Swim have one?

BPWS Students
BPWS students getting acclimated to the water (Image via Peteyshots by Petercov Denis)

The pandemic has impacted our entire world and especially small business owners. What have you been able to learn during this time?

COVID really taught us that pivoting isn’t only a dance move—it’s a business move. We’ve always had our story but this really made me do a deep dive into who our community is and what our story is. We are really just tapping into building and fostering a community, that’s what is really important. 

Looking towards the future, how do you see your vision for the swim facility coming to fruition post-pandemic?

Ideally, I would love for it to be in a Queens area where it’s not too far from Long Island. I would love for it to have a nice Olympic-sized pool as well as a smaller size pool because Olympic-sized pools can be a bit intimidating. The second pool would be like an entry-level pool where it has a deep side, but it’s not as big. It’s more so about creating a sense of security for those who may be intimidated just by a body of water in general. And this is, of course, a state-of-the-art facility. That is what I’m envisioning. It has to have slides, it has to have games where people can have fun.
 

“The one message I want to amplify is that no matter what age you are, it is never too late to learn something new.”

 

Once the pool is established, are there any other goals for how BPWS will evolve?

We eventually want to provide lifeguarding classes for those who completed our program. So that once they finish learning how to swim, they become a lifeguard. This is how we’re going to help the economy by providing resources, tools, and certifications.

What would you say is the most important thing people should know about swimming and your organization’s mission?

The one message I want to amplify is that no matter what age you are, it is never too late to learn something new. The key to facing your fears is to simply just face them, just feel the fear and do it anyway. And there’s no pressure if you don’t do it this year because there’s next year. As long as you do it, that’s what really matters.

What do you want the legacy of BPWS to be?

I want the legacy to simply be just teaching Black people how to conquer their fears, and that any and everything is possible.

BPWS Swim Instructors
BPWS Founder Paulana Lamonier and swim instructor Shannon Whittaker (Image via Peteyshots by Petercov Denis)

Click here to help BPWS raise funds to build a pool in their community and for more information on the organization’s pledge, please visit BlackPeopleWillSwim.com.