'Team Dream' advocates for more access to pools, swimming lessons

Now 84 and a competitive swimmer, Ann Smith said it is a myth that "Black people can't swim." 

Smith said she started "to be an athlete" at age 72, training and competing in triathlons and swimming competitions. She is one half of the "Team Dream" documentary, which chronicles the journey of two Black women in Chicago who train for the National Senior Games. 

The screening of the film and panel discussion January 18 in the Kirkhof Center continued Grand Valley's slate of events that commemorate the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

from left are Derrick Milligan, Ann Smith and Louis Moore
From left are Derrick Milligan, Ann Smith and Louis Moore, professor of history and co-chair of GVSU's MLK Commemoration Week Planning Committee. The panelists had a discussion about race and access to water following a screening of 'Team Dream' in the Kirkhof Center January 18.
Image credit - Lauren Seymour

Smith, a retired teacher, university professor and elected official, said she learned to swim in the segregated pool in Missouri that her father, then a Black school principal, lobbied people in her neighborhood to build.

"It's a myth that Black people can't swim," Smith said. "But what is true is that we have not had access to pools and the people and teams to teach us to swim."

Smith traveled to Grand Valley with the Team Dream coach Derrick Milligan. As they promote the film, which won the 2022 Chicago International Film Festival, they advocate for more access to pools and swim lessons for children.

Milligan said while drownings are a leading cause of unintentional death for all children, Black children drown in a pool at a rate of 10 times more than white children. 

Milligan said several factors limit access to pools and water, including the costs to municipalities to maintain and insure public pools. Now 59, Milligan said he "broke his family's cycle" of not swimming by taking lessons at age 4 at the Black YMCA in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Michael King at the podium
Student Michael King introduced Ann Smith and Derrick Milligan following a screening of the film 'Team Dream.'
Image credit - Lauren Seymour

He founded Team Dream, a multisport training organization in Chicago for women of color, and said he gets inspired by the athletes he trains.

"Ann has a quiet confidence," Milligan said. "She has given me new fuel. There are certain times I now ask myself, 'What would Ann do?'"

Under Milligan's direction, Smith has set athletic and personal goals for herself. While she has come close numerous times, she has yet to medal in a swim race at the National Senior Games, for competitors ages 50-100. Her next opportunity will be in 2025 in Des Moines, Iowa. 

Her personal goal: "To live to be 100 but to plan such a life so I am healthy and able to enjoy life at that age," she said.


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