For the first time in US Olympic history, there will be three African-American swimmers and two African-American gymnasts representing the USA. Colorlines.com has curated a Brief Guide to This Summer’s Unexpected U.S. Olympians of Color, a list of athletes of color competing in sporting categories that are historically racially homogeneous. They’re young, inspiring forces with unique stories and journeys and definitely worth watching out for this summer. Our quick list below covers only a short list of athletes in gymnastics and swimming, so head over to Colorlines.com for more athlete bios.
Cullen Jones is competing in the 50-meter freestyle. He is the third African American swimmer to make the U.S. Olympic Swim Team (the first was Anthony Ervin in 2000 at the Sydney Olympic Games). Jones tells Glamour.com, “I want to erase the belief that black people don’t swim. I see swimming as a life skill rather than just a sport.” When he was 5, Jones almost drowned at a water park. Now, he travels the country with the USA Swimming Foundation as the spokesperson for Make a Splash, a nationwide water safety campaign educating communities on the importance of learning to swim. The initiative offers free or low-cost swimming lessons to hundreds of cities.
17 year old Lia Neal will be the second black woman to make the US Olympic Swim Team, competing as part of the 400-meter relay team. She is half-black and half-Chinese; she speaks both Cantonese and Mandarin fluently. Neal and her family are fiercely dedicated to possibilities, and her story is an inspiring, positive symbol of her parents’ vision of the American dream. Neal’s father Rome says his daughter is “representing a nationality of people who have not been noted for titles in swimming.”
Nathan Adrian is the United States’ top-rated sprinter. He’ll be competing in the 100-meter freestyle and 400-meter relay team. Adrian identifies as half-Chinese and his middle name is “Ghar-Jun”, which means “little pony.” Adrian advocates for equality for athletics by working with USA Swimming’s Make a Splash Campaign to promote the importance of diversity in the sport to local swim clubs. Oh, and he drinks chocolate milk in the shower.
Bronx-based John Orozco, 19, was born to Puerto Rican parents and comes from a working class upbringing. When he was 14, he gave away his first paycheck that he earned at a gymnastics club to his family, who was facing hard times financially, to help pay the mortgage.
At 16, crowd-favorite Gabrielle Douglas will be the first African American since Dominque Dawes to join the women’s U.S. Olympic Gymnastics team. For the past two years, Douglas has been living away from home in order to train with her coach in Iowa. She hopes to be the second African American woman in gymnastics to win an individual medal.
Are there other aspiring London 2012 contenders that you’re rooting for and want to help us share their story? Let us know in the comments.