Ann E. Smith, 82, and Madeline Murphy Rabb, 78, never imagined they’d begin competitive swimming careers in their 70s. The two took the plunge despite lingering misconceptions and stereotypes regarding what Black women should do in their golden years. 

Their hours spent conditioning in the pool with their swim coach, Derrick Q. Milligan, paid off. Milligan founded Team Dream, a Chicago-based organization focused on training women-of-color athletes.

Smith and Rabb racked up gold and silver medals from regional and national swimming competitions, and their story in the short documentary Team Dream gained national attention. 

Swim coach Derrick Q. Milligan (left) and swimmer Madeline Murphy Rabb answering moderator Rob Bady’s questions after a screening of Team Dream. Credit: Gina Castro

“I am in the best condition I’ve ever been health-wise and physically in my life,” Rabb said. “There is never a time that I go swimming that I don’t feel wonderful. To all of you who are not exercising, who are not saying, ‘Yes, I’m gonna try that,’ instead of, ‘No, I can’t do that,’ get off your butt and try something different.”

The 22nd Annual Aging Well Conference sponsored by the Levy Senior Center Foundation and others made quite the splash Wednesday night. The first day of the three-day conference was a screening of Team Dream followed by Q&A with Rabb and Milligan. Smith wasn’t able to attend. She’s busy traveling around Europe, Rabb said. Rob Bady, a Levy Foundation board member, led the Q&A session.

About 100 seniors filled the rows of seats to watch the 18-minute documentary, and 40 joined on live stream. Team Dream follows Smith and Rabb in the final days before the 2022 National Senior Games in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The award-winning documentary shows the women’s determination to live long, healthy lives. Though winning isn’t the personal goal for either woman, they are eager to get to the finish line and prove others wrong, about the limits of seniors and myths about Black people swimming.

Levy Senior Center audience members react to Team Dream. Credit: Heidi Randhava

Ageism isn’t the only obstacle Team Dream faces head on. It exposes the ugly history of the myth “Black people can’t swim.” 

The history of disinvestment in Black neighborhoods, segregation of pools and beaches plus hundreds of years of slavery in the United States fractured Black America’s relationship with water. As a result, generations of Black people didn’t learn how to swim. An estimated 64% of Black children don’t know how to swim, which makes them three times more likely to drown than white children, according to a 2021 study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis.

“It’s about access to pools,” Rabb said. “It’s as simple as that.”

Rabb grew up in a segregated community in Baltimore. There was one public pool where she could swim and the rest were for white people only.

She recalled being surprised by the lingering racial divide in swimming when she competed for the first time in the National Senior Games in Albuquerque.

Litrea Hunter (left) and Donna Stevens agreed swimming isn’t an affordable sport. Hunter recently purchased classes at the YMCA for two of her granddaughters. “It’s expensive,” Hunter said. “There should be fee assistance on these prices.” Credit: Gina Castro

“We went to a public facility to compete, and it was gorgeous,” Rabb said. “I looked up the cost, and it was ridiculously inexpensive. It was in a white community. This does not exist in our [Black] communities. That is the big issue: lack of access. It’s not desire, it’s not ability. It’s a lack of access.”

Milligan’s parents didn’t know how to swim, he said. They broke that cycle by enrolling him in swimming classes when he was 4 years old. In turn, his children started swimming at 3 months and 6 months old.

Milligan explained in the documentary and during the Q&A that long before the transatlantic slave trade eroded Black people’s relationship with the water, many African tribes were masters of the waters. 

Through books like Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora, Milligan learned that Europeans documented African tribes’ deep sea diving, surfing and water exploration. That history was intentionally erased to prevent Black people from using waterways to escape slavery, he said.

“We can reverse that trend,” Milligan said. “It’s [swimming is] for everybody. It’s great for lifestyle diseases that Black and brown people are hit with disproportionately. So your diabetes, your certain cancers, high blood pressure, heart disease, all that can be reversed.”

Richard and Ronnie Zusman: He’s considering competitive swimming. Credit: Gina Castro

Smith and Rabb’s story left some audience members inspired to become athletes themselves.

Richard Zusman is a swimmer who is turning 79 in a few weeks. After hearing about the National Senior Games, he’s thinking about swimming competitively again, he said.

“It inspires me to get up and keep moving,” Zusman said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the size of the audience, both in person and live-streamed.

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Gina Castro

Gina Castro is a Racial Justice fellow for the RoundTable. She recently earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism where she studied investigative reporting....

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  1. Is there a way to watch this documentary other than a screening? Is it available online?

  2. I would be very interested to know if Evanston has continuing care and long term care for our Black and Hispanic communities. We live in such a community here in Evanston where the question has come up several times recently.

    Jackie Holland