This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with Salt Lake Community College, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.
The pool is silent except for the rhythmic slapping of water as the swimmers move back and forth. The laps seem endless, and the quiet breaks only when the coach calls out instructions. The smell of chlorine sits in the air as the swimmers listen.
Younger swimmers laugh a few lanes over at the Granger High School pool, but this group of older swimmers is more focused. Still, there’s laughter.
“The coaches make it fun, even though you are working out,” said 13-year-old Mirely Munoz, who joined the team nearly eight years ago after moving to Salt Lake from Wyoming.
Munoz swims for Race Swami, a team founded in 2011 to offer kids in the Rose Park and Glendale communities a place in the world of competitive youth swimming. About 80% of the team’s swimmers are athletes of color -- a rarity in the predominantly white sport, said founding coach Matt Finnigan.
Finnigan, who swam collegiately at Florida State University, first noticed a gap in opportunities for local swimmers as the coach of Judge Memorial Catholic High School’s team. A couple of his swimmers from Rose Park and Glendale wanted to keep swimming through the summer.
Finnigan encouraged them to join a year-round club, but they said there was nothing close by and they couldn’t afford to join one of the clubs in the wealthier neighborhoods like students at Judge, an east-side private school, could afford.
Finnigan said he knew Race Swami would need steady funding to offer scholarships and cover other expenses like technical competition suits that can cost hundreds of dollars.
It took a year of planning, plus funding from various foundations to get the team up and running. Race Swami’s first donation came from the McCarthey Family Foundation in Salt Lake City, and was followed by donations from the Sorenson Legacy Foundation and the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation.
A donation from the Larry H. and Gail Miller Foundation provides each new swimmer with the specialized swimming gear required for competitive swimming, such as paddles, fins, kickboards and snorkels.
“The donations provide a chance for the swimmers to train hard and get to a higher level,” Finnigan said.
Data from USA Swimming, the national governing body for competitive swimming in the United States, shows just 7% of its members are Hispanic or Latinx and 6% are African American or Black.
The lack of representation in the sport, Finnigan said, brought challenges when the team first competed. Finnigan said a meet official criticized the team’s appearance, blaming swimmers’ socioeconomic status.
“I know you have poor kids,” Finnigan recalls the official saying, “but I need them in real suits.”
Later, Finnigan secured a donation for high-end hoodies embroidered with the team’s and swimmer’s names. When they showed up at a local meet, he was asked by another coach how his team could afford the expensive gear.
“Our kids deserved those,” he said. “They wanted to look good.”
It wasn’t until 2016 that USA Swimming, in an effort to increase diversity, began releasing a series of cultural inclusion guides, according to Swimswam Magazine. The guides — which focus on African American, Asian American, LGBTQ+, Hispanic/Latino communities in swimming — serve as a tool for improving diversity and inclusion. The Hispanic/Latino Cultural Inclusion Resource Guide is written in both English and Spanish.
Finnigan said he wishes these resources were available when he started the team. He encountered language barriers early on. Many of the swimmers were bilingual, but their parents only spoke Spanish. It made communication difficult for Finnigan. The kids helped translate and, now he said, his Spanish has improved.
“It’s better than it was. The kids still like to correct me though,” he said.
Keep on swimming
As USA Swimming focuses on increasing representation, 17-year-old sprint freestyler Amy Chung said she’s more focused on the sport itself.
“When I’m at a meet, I notice there aren’t a lot of people that look like me, but I don’t feel different,” said Chung, who has been swimming since she was 8. “Everyone is there to compete.”
And she loves to compete. Not only in the pool but also in the classroom, where strong academics at Taylorsville High School are taking her to the Naval Academy in the fall. Chung, who is Asian American, joined Race Swami last year because she loves the support she feels from her teammates and coaches.
She credits the coaches for preparing her for the hard work and challenges that she will face as she works to get into medical school.
“The coaches here have taught us more than swimming,” she said. “I’ve learned time management, to work with teammates, and to be competitive.”
The swimmers have also learned to be resilient.
“At first it was hurtful when other teams would make comments [about our backgrounds] in the locker rooms,” said Lorena Thompson, a 16-year-old junior at West High School.
After 10 years of swimming, she has learned to focus instead on swimming fast and giving back to the community, which Finnigan encourages. Last year, for example, the team partnered with students from the University of Utah to make mats out of plastic bags to be used at women’s shelters in Salt Lake City.
Ed Munoz also appreciates the sense of community he feels with the team. After moving to Utah from Wyoming in 2013, the single dad of two daughters felt lost without any family or friends for support. Instead, they found a place to belong at Race Swami.
“The swim team became our community,” Munoz said, noting his daughter Mirely has connected with the female dominated-team.
Mirely, who was the youngest member of the team when she began swimming at eight years old, says the best thing about the team is the moral support.
“The coaches take the time to listen and help everyone with their personal needs and not just swimming stuff,” she said. “They help us with school too.”
From the pool to life
It is this mindset of helping outside the pool that brought coach Russell Lauber out of retirement and back onto the pool deck as coach at Race Swami. Lauber coached the Cottonwood Heights Aquatics Team for 27 years and Brighton High School for 25 years. Under his tenure, the girls teams won an unprecedented 20 consecutive state championships and his boys teams won 16 state championships.
“If all we wanted were fast swimmers, we would get trained seals,” he said. “When the swimming days are over and you move on to college and a professional life, no one asks how fast you were. Instead, they ask can you handle the rigor of the school, job or program. Swimming prepares these kids for life challenges.”
Finnigan is proud of what he says is the team’s 100% high school graduation rate.
He said his wife Mary Chris Finnigan works as an academic advisor at the University of Utah and helps arrange academic tutors for homework. She also sets up ACT prep classes for older swimmers.
“All of the kids from our club have gone on to college,” he said. “Swimming has given them the confidence to set high goals and pursue them.”
Kirsten Buker is a journalism student at Salt Lake Community College. This story is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.