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Alia Atkinson Makes History: The First Black Woman to Win a World Swimming Title

Alia Atkinson Makes History: The First Black Woman to Win a World Swimming Title

Posted by Shanelle Weir on December 06, 2014

Alia Atkinson made history in Doha this evening when she became the first black woman – and racer from Jamaica either gender – to win a world swimming title – and the moment came with a fourth line in the history books: in 1:02.36, she matched the world record of the woman she pipped, Ruta Meilutyte, Olympic and World l/c champion.

The first black woman ever to hold a world s/c record – in the days before FINA recognised standards in the little pool – was Enith Brigitha, of The Netherlands, 40 years ago. Brigitha, beaten by East Germans at major meets throughout her career, set the 100m freestyle standard three times in her career, overtaking Shane Gould‘s 58.1 from 1971 with a 57.04 in 1974. [I went swimming with Gould today – a thrilling experience on a day when Atkinson’s swim gave us reason to recall the world of water four decades ago].

2014 12th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Doha, Sports, Swimming

alia atkinson 2014 12th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Doha, Sports, Swimming

In 2014, Meilutyte (LTU) was out first in 29.10, Atkinson on 29.46. The last two laps saw Atkinson, 26, edge level before timing her finish better than Meilutyte’s last rush for the wall: 1:02.46 took silver, the race won on the back of back-end 50 splits of 32.90 for the victor, 33.36 for the vanquished.

“Me!?” screamed Atkinson as she glared up at the scoreboard in amazement and joy. The time had long been a-coming, Atkinson an old hand at speed on world cup tour but getting her fingertips to the wall first in a major race had proved a mission impossible – until today.

The championship record set by Meilutyte at 1:02.43 in semi-finals yesterday was also sunk in the midst of it all, while bronze went to Dutch challenger Moniek Nijhuis in 1:04.03. That locked out Shi Jinglin (CHN), on 1:04.52 and Sally Hunter (AUS) on 1:04.82, those top 5 finishers the best 5 in the world this season. AndRikke Pedersen (DEN) made it six, with a 1:04.84.

Atkinson was over the moon:

“I couldn’t believe it! It came down to the same thing as the 50 and on the 50 I got out-touched so in my mind I went straight back to that. I just thought ‘oh okay’ and looked up at the board and it didn’t really click yet and then it really started to click. It took a while!”

Atkinson was in line back in the summer to become the first black woman to win a Commonwealth swimming title but it was not to be in the long-course pool. Even so, a medal in Glasgow behind England’s champion Sophie Taylor made her the most successful swimmer from her nation since the Games began in 1934.

And now she tops the world in short-course this year:

2014 12th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Doha, Sports, Swimming

Atkinson’s presence in the pool transcends her athletic excellence in a sport overwhelmingly white at elite level. The 26-year-old features in a documentary made by the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida, where she works as a Special Projects Director. The work is aimed at promoting swimming to parents and children. Atkinson is the poster girl for a colouring book “Water Safety for Kids” by artist Kimberly Peterson.

“Drowning accidents occur too frequently,” said Atkinson. “They are always tragic and the grief we experience through the loss of a loved one is barely diminished by the passing of time. Whether the victim happens to be a young child or an adult, the impact on family and relatives is devastating.”

She added: “Growing up on the island of Jamaica, surrounded by some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, my parents felt that not only was learning to swim important for keeping me safe from drowning, but that the ability to swim would also provide me a lifelong passport to a world of recreational pleasures and employment possibilities on a planet that is mostly made of water.”

Just how important black swimming role models are cannot be overstated. Drowning figures are unacceptable high in many parts of the world and atrociously so among populations that do not have a strong tradition of swimming or, where there is a strong tradition, such as in the United States, but cultural and historical reasons why minority populations have had to overcome higher barriers. If the Saving Lives Through Make a Splash campaign at USA Swimming is among pathfinding projects, then worth a read, too, about how it all came to get where it got to in the terrific book “Contested Waters” by Jeff Wiltse.

On her Hall of Fame work and project, Atkinson hoped that her win tonight would help to promote the great cause of safety and even generate elite swimmers in her nation some day:

“Hopefully my face will come out, there will be more popularity especially in Jamaica and the Caribbean and we’ll see more of a rise and hopefully in the future we will see a push.”

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