The Howard University Bison swimming program boasts the only all-black swimming team in college swimming in the United States of America (USA). On that swimming roster are five Bahamians who are happy to be a part of something big at the school.
The Bahamians on that squad are Erald Thompson III, Kaliyah Albury and siblings Luke Kennedy, Mark-Anthony and Zaylie-Elizabeth Thompson.
Howard, which is located in Washington, D.C, is also the only Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) to have a swimming program. The men’s team won this year’s Northeast Conference (NEC) title in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I (DI).
Luke-Kennedy is a senior and was the first of the five to head to Washington for the Bison in 2019. He had his sophomore season canceled due to the presence of COVID-19. He spoke about the box that black persons are placed into when it comes to swimming and thinks that Howard was able to dispel that notion a little.
“I know that the stereotype of black people cannot swim is very known inside America and they tend to judge us based on the color of our skin. Coming out and showing that the color of our skin does not define us is our way of thinking and the sport is big for Howard University. Being the only HBCU with a swim team at the division one level is a really big deal, especially when there’s only 1.5 percent of black swimmers in collegiate swimming. To be able to come out and do what we did is a real accomplishment, for not only us, but for black people in America and around the world,” Luke-Kennedy Thompson said.
Zaylie-Elizabeth, a sophomore, who was one of the captains of last year’s CARIFTA swim team for The Bahamas, said that representation is very important.
“I think it’s important to be that representation – that you can do it too. For little black girls, little black boys and for little Bahamians who are just looking up to swimmers and thinking what to do after high school, this is an outlet. We come from an environment where we look like everyone around us and we compete with people who look like us, then we go to school and we’re the only persons who look like us on the team. Now it’s like I can go to a team and still feel like a part of the family and feel like I’m in a comfortable environment and there are so many people who look like me. I think that kind of representation is important.” Zaylie-Elizabeth said.
Albury, a sophomore, said that there are a lot of Bahamian female swimmers who stop swimming after high school.
“I know a lot of Bahamian swimmers, especially female, just stop swimming, like by the time they finish with high school, because there’s nothing else to do. They don’t know where to go next, so it’s very good to be, that guide or people look at me and say I’m swimming so they could also do it,” Albury said.
As for a HBCU swimming championship, Zaylie-Elizabeth said that is something that she would like to see.
“I feel like it would be the hottest swimming in college history. I would love to see other black people swimming and competing, especially at the NCAA DI level because we can do it. It’s not like we don’t have the black swimmers and yes we are the minority but that doesn’t mean we’re not there. I definitely would be excited to be a part of something like that,” Zaylie-Elizabeth said.
Albury feels like even if it is not on the NCAA DI level, having the HBCUs compete against themselves would have an unimaginable energy.
Erald Thompson, who was also one of the captains for the CARIFTA swim team last year, spoke about the conference victory and the hard work it took to get there.
“It’s been very long journey, lots of morning practice, a lot of gym work and a lot of hard mental spaces to go through. Coming through and getting the win was a big deal for us, especially with a conference championship,” he said.
Luke-Kennedy said the win was partly because of those who came before the swimmers there now and Head Coach Nicholas Askew.
“Even before us, this has been set in motion by the swimmers who came before us. We just carried the torch and completed the goal of winning conference championship. There’s been a lot of work that’s been put in. Coach Nick Askew has worked on his recruiting and recruiting the right people for the team to be able to get to this level and win a conference championship,” he said.
Mark-Anthony, a junior, said they worked hard for the historic conference championship this past season.
“The feeling was exhilarating. To know that all the hard work and sacrifice for the season paid off and we’re now reaping the benefits, is a wonderful thing. We made history when we won our conference championship and it’s a good feeling to always remember,” he said.
One of the goals for the program at the beginning of the season was for the men or women to win the NEC title. Although the women did not win, Albury said she is happy for the men’s team.
“I feel as though it was a team accomplishment because all season long we trained in and out of the pool in trying to get to that goal of winning conference. It just was a big accomplishment when the final day came around and the men’s team won,” Albury said.
The senior on the team spoke highly of his coach who has helped the program get to where it is and displayed great leadership.
“He has really built this program to be where it is today, and I’m just so happy to see the growth of the program from when I started to see it now and winning the conference championship is amazing. He has three core principles – discipline, accountability and he’s positive. He makes sure he instills this in all his swimmers as we enter the program and he’s truly shown us what we can accomplish at the program,” Luke-Kennedy said.
Erald Thompson said that adjusting to life at Howard was easy as he had the other four Bahamians there with him on the swim team, especially senior Luke-Kennedy.
“I was very nervous for my first meet and having Luke-Kennedy there as someone who walked before me, was huge. He was encouraging and was there for me. He’s been a very big role model for me. He’s also like an older brother. Having our fellow Bahamians there with us was a big deal to us,” Erald said.
For Luke-Kennedy, he was happy to have other Bahamians join him on the team as he knew that he had a piece of home with him. He was thankful that he was able to go to Howard and show people back home that they, too, can swim at the NCAA DI level.
“Having the Bahamian swimmers here has been comforting and almost like bringing a piece of home over here and being able to have that close family support is amazing. Sometimes we have little cookouts on the weekend, with little peas n’ rice made by my sister. I am glad to have that up here,” Luke-Kennedy said.
Mark-Anthony enjoys being a part of the team and loves the feeling of family.
“The thing I like most about being on the team is a sense of constant competition and the drive to get better and to be better. On this team we’re like brothers and sisters and we always push each other every chance we get, whether in the weight room, the pool, or in class,” he said.
They all enjoy the environment that Askew has created which includes lively music at their practices and meets. They are known as the team that brings the energy and has sold out their home meets at Burr Gymnasium Pool in Washington, D.C.