High fives need no translation

It is 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday in June. The neighborhood pool is already filled with families putting sunscreen on their kids and ensuring goggles and swim caps are ready. Swim team season has begun here in Austin.

As I sit in the “6 and under” swimmers tent putting sunscreen on my own children, I hear kids demanding breakfast from their tired parents in at least five different languages. Swimmers are wearing whatever type of swimsuits they and their parents are comfortable using. Snacks for the long meet ahead reflect ingredients in the families’ home kitchens. Over the next several hours, the pep talks, the cheering and the comforting after a lost race will all be done in the languages of the families enjoying the pool.

Such a swim team experience is notable when examining the history behind the treatment of people of color in Austin. The city government moved all black and Latino/a residents to the East side of the city’s main corridor in 1928. The city of Austin barred black residents’ access to the city’s iconic pool, Barton Springs, in 1932. It was not until 1960 that all residents were allowed to use Barton Springs. Three years later, the rest of the public pools and playgrounds in the city opened to the public. Records show there were Chinese immigrants living in Austin since the late 1800s, with immigration from multiple Asian countries continuing for decades. However, the city did not open an Asian American Resource Center to offer culturally appropriate support services to this population until 2016.

The community integration happening through the neighborhood swim team is not an accident. The structure of the organization allows for the participation, ownership and inclusion of all participants. The Board of Directors is comprised of parents of team members, with many coming from different home countries. English is the language of the parent meetings, but everyone is patient and understanding when something needs repeating. The coaches are often former swimmers or are parents of current swimmers. Every parent with a swimmer on the team must volunteer the same amount of hours, and those hours cannot be substituted for a cash contribution. The kids, taking cues from the adults, muddle through the complex and hilarious conversations that ensue when multiple languages are used at once. These components work together to foster a sense of teamwork and to create welcoming experiences for native and foreign-born community members alike.

Back at the swim meet, I watch a 10-year-old approach the “6 and under” tent. He calls out the names of the four boys, his buddies for the season. English is his first language, and the younger boys in his group speak at least two additional languages. Undaunted, the older boy hands out high fives, a sign of encouragement that needs no translation.


A community pool in Austin, Texas