Andre Morton’s program in Cleveland is teaching African-Americans the lifesaving skill of swimming
Andre Morton has always been a strong swimmer. He learned to swim when he was about 8 years old in a YMCA program and competed on an AAU team when he was growing up. He soon learned he had a knack for teaching others to swim too. “I’d help out my cousins,” he recalls, but it would take many years before that passion for the water and facility in helping others would emerge as his calling.
Like many other swimmers, Morton became a lifeguard as a teenager and worked his way through a series of WSI courses in college. Throughout his life, swimming and a love for the water has been a constant. It just felt natural to him.
But it’s not as natural an activity for all, especially many African Americans. Swimming has a lengthy history of discrimination against members of minority groups, and for many black and brown people, swimming just isn’t as available an option. A recent USA Swimming Foundation nationwide study found that 64 percent of African American children cannot swim; compare that to the 45 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of Caucasian children who can’t swim.
In 2013, Morton’s wife, Kim Morton, suggested that he do something about that by leveraging his own skill in the water and creating a business around offering lessons and helping others get more comfortable in the water. “She told me she’d never seen a lot of black men swimming and that she’d never met a black guy who could swim like I did,” he recalls. Morton had grown up with a lack of black male role models in swimming, but his wife saw an opportunity for Morton to stop that cycle and become that needed role model for young black people in Cleveland with his swimming.
Thus, in 2014, he established Rhythm and Stroke, LLC, and “got serious” about offering lessons and training to kids and adults in Cleveland, he says. The name for the company was also suggested by his wife because of his unique approach to thinking about swimming.
Initially, Morton established his program at a community college in Cleveland, and in order to get put on the course offering list, he needed to devise a class that was different from anything else offered. Although there were learn-to-swim classes on the docket, there wasn’t an advanced swimming class, so Morton developed a program that would ease the transition for new swimmers who’d just learned how to swim to become more skilled in the rhythm of the strokes and eventually become competent enough to go on to fitness or competitive swimming.
“There’s a rhythmic motion to what you do in the water,” he says. “When I teach, I explain that the way you move through the water is very rhythmic and smooth and the timing is tight. So I’m the man who puts the rhythm in your stroke—rhythm and stroke. That’s how the name was born.”
As it turned out, Morton has a knack for working with adults, especially those who are very fearful of the water or have a lot of anxiety about swimming. “I tell them that if we could wind the clock back, this would be a much easier process, but adults have a lot of mental baggage and life experience. It’s more mental” to unravel a lifetime of fear and anxiety and break down those barriers that prevent an adult from wanting to swim, he says. But, with a lot of patience and care, Morton has found enormous success in moving adults through the multistep process of learning to swim.
He also makes a point of modifying exercises and drills to accommodate any physical issues, such as joints that have been replaced or shoulder problems, to make swimming a more comfortable experience for his students. Physical comfort can help ease the mental anxiety around learning to swim for many people.
And word has gotten out that there’s a swimming wizard at work in Cleveland. The program has grown quickly, and it’s now Morton’s full-time gig. He works out of several pools in Cleveland and Shaker Heights, and his goal is to eventually have his own permanent facility.
One reason why his classes work so well is because the participants bond as comrades and colleagues, he says. “I create an atmosphere where the people in my classes become friends.” He encourages them to practice in between lessons, and often, they will do so together, thus extending the social element of the class well beyond the confines of their group sessions and into long-term friendships in and out of the pool.
Morton’s program was a USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation grant recipient for 2020 and he hopes to be able to reach even more people who need to learn to swim and become water-safe this year and for years to come. In an effort to get the word out about water safety and drowning prevention, Morton has turned himself into a 3D animated superhero character named Splash, and his female counterpart, Supernatural, modeled after his wife. Through an Indiegogo campaign, he’s sought to raise funds to create five episodes of Splash and Friends, a series that aims to spread the word about water safety while also entertaining and providing representation of black people in swimming.
It’s all part of “fighting the good fight” to improve water safety, especially in minority communities. “We’re doing our part to change that narrative” that black people can’t or shouldn’t swim, Morton says.
- Adult Learn-to-Swim