Like most truly motivated people, Erika Binger has not only a dream, but also a plan, a location, a feasibility study and other must-check-off criteria to try to make it a reality.
Unlike many, though, her dream carries a hefty price tag: $44 milllion.
“Actually, we’ve raised 15 percent of it so far,” the Twin Cities-based philanthropist, youth worker and triathlete told me recently about a proposed state of the art, multi-sport/community center/retail complex in north Minneapolis. Yes, that area that could use as many economic and job opportunity boosts as it can get.
Now, I tapped into my old grammar school knowledge of very basic math to figure out that Binger’s dream is at least $37.4-million underfunded right now. Binger is not deterred in the least.
“I’m very confident because God put this in my heart to get accomplished,” she said.
The group she helped found a decade ago, V3 Sports, already purchased a large empty building on the northeast corner of Lyndale and Plymouth avenues. The group was formed to expose inner-city and underprivileged youths to the benefits of biking, running and swimming — the three-legged stool of triathlon sports.
Now the part of this concept that caught my attention is its sports anchor — a proposed 50-meter, Olympic sized indoor pool — and its lofty attempt to teach both parents and children in communities of color in north Minneapolis and elsewhere how to swim.
The racial and ethnic disparities in swimming acumen and drowning rates both nationally and here in the land of 11,000-plus lakes is frankly stunning to me.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and other sources:
According to the USA Swimming Foundation, “70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Latino children, compared to 40 percent of white children, have limited or no swimming ability.”
This is hardly news to Samuel Myers, a professor at the University of Minnesota and a researcher on the historical impact of such disparities in American life.
Myers crunched CDC yearly figures a few years ago and discovered that Minnesota ranked first and other times second in the nation in the gap between black and white drownings.
There are several reasons for the local and national gap. One is back-in-the-day historic: slave-owners banned slaves from learning how to swim out of fear they might escape. Then there were the segregated pools during Jim Crow days, as well as financial and accessible barriers put up in other locales.
More recent times have given rise to the shutdown of inner city school pools due to budget cuts and lack of access to a limited number of both indoor and outdoor public pool facilities.
Myers addresses the documented gap here and elsewhere in a chapter of his soon-to-be-published book: “Race Neutrality: Remedies to Racial Inequality.”
“Minnesota has the highest racial disparity in representation in drowning rates in the nation,” Myers writes. “It also has the highest racial disparity in representation among age group competitive swimmers. Nationally, there is a strong inverse relationship between drowning rates for African-Americans and membership in competitiveness swimming.”
Myers believes the black community also must take ownership of cultural acceptance of the benefits of swimming. Access to a pool and “free” swimming programs targeted at minority communities, as Broward County, Fla., has done in recent years, are a start. Another is making state legislators here aware that this should be part of a public policy.
“Money flows from where people (legislators) want the money to flow,” said Myers, who learned how to swim at the age of 4 in a post-World War II peewee father-son swim program in Baltimore. “The best time to teach a child to learn how to swim is when they have not yet developed a fear of the water. The benefits are not just exercise or better health. It has to do with the reduction of loss of life.”
He knows about Binger’s goals.
“Her heart is in the right place, and I support her wholeheartedly,” Myers said.
So does Sherman Patterson, Jr. The longtime north Minneapolis resident and community advocate is an Army veteran, V3 sports board member and the nephew of the late and legendary heavyweight boxing champion Floyd Patterson.
He shares the same experience with Cullen Jones, 34, the two-time Olympic gold medalist and Bronx native who will headline a V3 sports sponsored event Sept. 23 at the University of Minnesota’s aquatics center. Roughly 300 city youths from St. Paul and Minneapolis will be invited to meet Jones and learn how to swim.
“I almost drowned,” Patterson, a Savannah, Ga., native, said of the day he jumped into the deep end of a public pool in the 1960s while visiting an aunt in the Bronx. He did not know then how to swim.
“I remember my dad jumping over the fence, and then finding myself lying on the concrete,” he recalled.
“We need this in North Minneapolis,” he told me, adding that plans call for swimming lessons for adults as well as kids as young as six months.
“This has to happen,” he added. “This (complex) is not just for black people, but for all people. If you build on generations then that’s how you break that cycle on (not knowing) how to swim and a whole lot of other things.”
Jones, who won the gold medal in 2008 and 2012 as part of the USA’s 4×100 meter relay team that featured Michael Phelps, concurred. He believes teaching kids to swim as part of the physical education curriculum at accessible public school indoor pools would be ideal.
“But the problem is that so many schools are starting to close pools because it’s so expensive,” said Jones, who now serves as a key spokesman for USA Swimming’s “Make A Splash” education and public awareness program.
“To combat that, what we are trying to do is to focus on the exposure and to get the parents to know how important it is and to make the effort to help their kids how to learn how to swim.”
Binger, who grew up in Big Arm, Mont., and the Flathead Indian reservation in that state and swam competitively during her college days at Pepperdine University, said her dream was partly a response to the lack of swimming programs and affordable and accessible facilities in North Minneapolis and elsewhere, where such education may be needed the most.
“Right now, there is no public pool in North Minneapolis that we can have access to year-round,” Binger said of her group’s youth work. “We need to bring the resources to where the kids are, to expose them to swimming and water safety.”
Hope the dream becomes reality.