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by Jean Tyrell

April 21, 2022

Prear taught about 80% of his club’s members how to swim and then persuaded them to compete

Danny Prear can claim something few other Masters Swimming coaches can: He taught 80% of his club’s members how to swim and then persuaded them to compete.

He’s the coach of Mighty Kroc Masters Swim Club, a four-year-old program largely composed of Black swimmers that trains on the South Side of Chicago. The club started after some of the people he taught how to swim in 2018 expressed interest in competing. In March 2019, he took them to their first Masters meet.

Some of his swimmers needed to be persuaded to compete in the meet. Not all of them were confident. When they arrived at the pool, Prear says, some of his swimmers were scared about the number of other competitors and the number of spectators. “We’re beginners,” they told him. His response: “You’ll be fine. Just make the distance.”

Sharon Jenkins, one of Prear’s swimmers at that meet, remembers thinking, “Why do we have to do this?” She never thought of herself as an athlete, especially as a swimmer. She was worried about not being able to finish and about swallowing water during her 50 freestyle. She even thought about scratching her race. Prear encouraged her to swim despite her fear. “You can do it,” he told her.

She did do it. “I remember people clapping and congratulating me,” Jenkins says. “Strangers were high-fiving me” when she went back to where she was sitting.

Many of Prear’s swimmers faced structural barriers that kept them from learning to swim until they joined Mighty Kroc Masters Swim Club.

Jenkins, 63, grew up in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes public housing project that she says had “tens of thousands of us who were Black and had no easy access to a pool.”

Nancy O’Donnell, 73, says that even if she had wanted to swim in high school, she couldn’t have. Title IX, which provided more opportunities for girls and women to compete in sports, wasn’t passed until 1972, several years after she graduated from high school.

“We were not given the opportunity to participate in any high school sport,” she says. “When I joined [USMS], it was the first time I could compete and experience the spirit of being a part of a team.”

Mary McKamey, 65, had another reason for not learning how to swim as a child: her hair. While growing up in the 1970s, she says, there was an emphasis for Black girls and women to maintain straightened hair. The process of keeping a Black woman’s hair straight is arduous and requires someone to assist or a salon visit. McKamey was unwilling to throw away all the work done to straighten her hair by getting it wet.

Prear, 62, had a different childhood experience when it came to swimming. He learned to swim at age 15 in his neighborhood pool. “Everybody went to the pool,” he says. “We played and splashed and took Park District lessons.”

He then became a lifeguard because lifeguards had more access to the pool and joined a swim team. The water captivated him.

“[I’d] eat chlorine every day. We’d swim and get red eyes. We couldn’t afford goggles. We’d see people with goggles [and think] ‘What do they have goggles on for,’” he says, chuckling.

Prear spent his career as an aquatics instructor and water polo coach with the Chicago Park District. About 12 years ago, he joined the Salvation Army Kroc Center as a certified instructor, swim coach, and lifeguard instructor.

Prear ignores any myths about who can and can’t swim. His focus is on getting swimmers on the path from learning to swim to becoming proficient and comfortable in the water.

McKamey vividly remembers learning to float for the first time with Mighty Kroc Masters Swim Club. She described herself as both laughing and crying afterward because of how excited she was about the accomplishment. While she was learning how to swim, she received Prear’s encouragement, which she described as his gift.

“I saw how he pushed [other swimmers],” she says. “He’s able to talk about your swimming in a nice way. He doesn’t beat up your spirit, but he tells you what you need to work on. It’s a confidence level that he instills in us.”

His encouragement-and-fundamentals coaching style can be seen at any of Mighty Kroc Masters Swim Club’s workouts. He gives his swimmers insights into how to improve and the confidence to do so.

He’ll watch, provide suggestions to, and laugh with his learn-to-swim students, and when they’re ready, he walks them over to what he jokingly refers to as the “dark side” and “the shark tank”—the competition/lap pool.

When his swimmers worry about the depth of the pool, he tells them they’re swimming at the surface, not on the bottom. He’ll put new swimmers in the end lanes, so he can watch them more closely. He reassures them there are lane lines to grab onto if they need as well as a lifeguard and himself watching. “You’ll be fine,” he tells them.

He also lets them know they have a few more steps on their swimming journey. They can “graduate” to the middle lanes and eventually to the center lane as their skills improve.

As Prear promoted his program, he drew Jim Taylor, who knew Prear from age-group swimming years before. Taylor, who swam in high school and college, brought a different dimension to Mighty Kroc Masters Swim Club’s practices: more advanced workouts for members who were moving beyond Prear’s short-yardage workouts filled with technique work.

Taylor’s more difficult workouts motivated Nancy O’Donnell and others to work harder. “We can’t do his workout, but we do more than we would otherwise,” she says. The increased yardage and intensity helped her bounce back from a recent knee surgery quicker because of her improved fitness.

“[USMS] is inclusive, a completely inclusive group,” Taylor says. “If you have a desire to swim, [Danny] will take you on.”

Learning how to swim has been a confidence booster for his swimmers, and swimming has become part of their lifestyle. McKamey says her friends are amazed that she goes to the Kroc Center to swim in the winter when it’s snowing because it’s become that important to her.

The subtle influence on other friends and family members that swimming is important is another positive effect of Prear’s work. McKamey says her grandchildren are in swim lessons at the Kroc Center, as are her niece’s children.

The coronavirus pandemic put a dent in the number of swimmers in the program, but people have gradually returned. The Mighty Kroc Masters Swim Club has about 12 to 15 members now, about two-thirds of the size it was before the pandemic.

The swimmers have found a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment. “To me, to compete [in Masters Swimming], it’s a privilege,” McKamey says.

Prear is proud of the number of people he’s brought into the world of swimming. As he sat in his poolside office at the Kroc Center one day last November, he saw a newer swimmer on the pool deck.

“You’re ready,” he said softly. The swimmer didn’t hear, but Prear was eyeing another swimmer ready to take that walk to the lap pool and join his club.


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