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Article on Parting the Waters in the Philadelphia Daily News

Click here to read the article Stan Hochman wrote about Parting the Waters.

Posted on Mon, Jul. 20, 2009

Stan Hochman: Timely story of race & fear in swimming world

By Stan Hochman
Philadelphia Daily News

Daily News Sports Columnist
YOU WANT NUMBERS, you get numbers, bleak, grim statistics. Black and Latino kids from the ages of 5 to 14 drown 2.6 times more often than white kids.

Many of them can’t swim, because their parents couldn’t swim. They wait outside a pool till 5 o’clock when the lifeguard is gone and there’s no admission charge, and they wander into the deep water . . . or they pick some remote creek or pond or lake . . . no lifeguard, no fee, no chance!

You want another number? How about, only 1 percent of the 300,000 competitive swimmers in the U.S. of A. are African-American or Latino.

Writer Jenny Levison and director Josh Waletzky are finishing a documentary called “Parting the Waters” that takes a long, hard look at those numbers and the reasons behind them, a jumbled mosaic of fear and myth and racism.

They were editing the film when that painful drama played out at the Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley. Unless you were vacationing in Antarctica, you read about it, the club reneging on a pay-for-play deal with the Creative Steps day camp after mostly African-American and Latino kids splashed in the pool one time.

“Now, that incident makes people understand the relevance of the film,” Levison said. “It’s now easier to raise money.”

The lawyers may seek reparations, but money won’t heal psychological wounds.

“Of course, that’s going to scar a kid,” Waletzky said. “Even if they never talk about it. They’re excited, they’re going swimming at a pool, a treat. That’s part of American life. And then . . . you get turned away?”

“Intimacy,” Levison said, ticking off some of the reasons for the skimpy representation of minorities in competitive swimming. “Access. Whites fearing blacks. It’s an expensive thing if you have to drive to the suburbs to be on a USA swim team.”

In 1987, 40 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line, Dodgers general manager Al Campanis told Ted Koppel and a startled nation that so many blacks were poor swimmers because they lacked “buoyancy.”

Buoy-oh-buoyancy! He also told Koppel that maybe blacks lacked “the necessities” to be baseball managers or general managers. Two days later, the Dodgers fired him.

“Campanis may be in the film,” Levison said sheepishly. “Or out. We go back-and-forth. In. Out.”

“We interview a scholar in the film,” Waletzky said. “He makes a relevant point that Americans seem to go to racialized explanations of things. They see an Olympic team with one or zero African-Americans and they think there must be a physical reason.

“Well, you can’t do anything about that. The truth is harder to deal with. Discrimination has a long legacy. There’s the problem of access. And once a generation does not learn to swim, that gets passed down to the next generation.”

Cullen Jones can swim. He has an Olympic gold medal. He also has a deal with Nike.

“There’s an aspect of economics,” Waletzky said. “Basketball and football are cash sports. Swimming does not make money.

“One of the young men in the film is a talented swimmer. But he’s also a talented pitcher. Eventually, he chose to abandon swimming to go into baseball.”

Jones is in the film, encouraged by Maritza Correia, the first black female on a U.S. Olympic swim team, to take on the grinding job of role model. The film sparkles with teenagers inspired by Jones and Correia.

And there’s the sad, solemn undercurrent of a Toledo mom who lost a son to drowning.

“It happened at an unsupervised lake. She decided that what she wanted to do,” Waletzky explained, “was start a learn-to-swim program. So that no other mother would lose a child to drowning.

“One of the fundamental reasons, she tells us at the outset, is that her father saw somebody drown and never taught anyone else in the family to swim.”

It’s a powerful story, a timely story, one that fulfills the mission statement of Do Tell Productions, “creating high quality film and theater works of social and cultural significance.”

The wheels of social justice grind slowly. The film gets it right, with its theme: “It only takes seconds to set a world record. But it takes decades to set the world straight.” *

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