“This isn’t a bunch of Black people in a pool,” remarks Nic Askew, the coach of the all-Black swim team at Howard University. “It’s young Black men and women succeeding in a sport that, for years, has shut them out of this experience.” For Sports Illustrated, Robert Sanchez spends time with Askew, a 44-year-old Howard alum and record-setting swimmer who agreed to take over the university’s swimming program. An inspiring coach, Askew has slowly but steadily breathed life into the program, creating, reports Sanchez, “arguably the most electric collegiate swimming environment in the U.S.”

Today, Black Americans are 5.5 times more likely to drown than white ones, and historically, racism has made pools across the U.S. — and swimming as both a sport and leisurely activity — less accessible to Black communities. While other HBCUs have cut programs over the decades, Howard’s swim program still stands, and stands proudly.

Askew is a font of positivity, a never-ending seeker of the good that’s just around the corner. It’s an attitude that dates to his time two decades ago as a record-setting swimmer and all-conference tennis player at Howard. “He always wants to know what’s next,” says King, Askew’s former teammate, who once starred as a distance freestyler. “And he’s bringing you with him.” Askew often talks about overflowing cups, about using his cup to fill others’, about the big idea he has for the Bison pool, about the team’s schedule, about winning, about the idea that America’s only all-Black college swim team could become a touchstone for underserved communities across the country.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.