My twin niece and nephew got their first swimming lesson when they were 18 months old. My sister Jean was determined that they not inherit her fear of the water. A fear born from her own first swim lesson at Girl Scout camp, a without-warning drop into a murky cold lake.

That not-so-repressed memory came back as she settled herself into the parents’ sitting area to see her little ones get introduced to the water. My sister recalls “she had no breath to scream” as she watched her kids flying through the air before hitting the water with a noisy splash down. They immediately got comfortable kicking their legs, as the instructor knew they would.

Both my niece and nephew are strong swimmers today. Mission accomplished for my non-swimming sister, who also knew most Black kids can’t swim — 64%, according to a joint study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis with the YMCA.

That’s one of the reasons there aren’t a lot of Black competitive swimmers, and even fewer of Olympic caliber. Not enough potential talent in the pipeline.

It doesn’t help that the International Swimming Federation, or FINA, banned a swim cap made by the British company Soul Cap, designed especially to cover Black swimmers’ afros, locs and braids. Up until now, Black swimmers have been forced to try to squeeze their hair into the much smaller cap designed for white hair, which grows straight and flat to the head. The company was inspired by Alice Dearing, the first Black woman to compete on the British Olympic swim team, who has a bushy afro. The larger cap does not enhance performance — in fact, experts note that it actually creates drag or resistance in the water. No matter. A little more than a week ago, FINA banned the cap’s use because according to the organization’s culturally tone-deaf reason: the large swim cap “did not fit the normal shape of the head.” The casually racist comment was met with intense global backlash, followed by an announcement that FINA was reconsidering its ban.

I didn’t have much interest in Olympic swimming until Michael Phelps became the gold medal king. That’s probably why I happened to be watching the 2016 Rio women’s swimming competition in Brazil when the USA’s Simone Manuel won. I was frankly surprised when her brown face popped up after touching the pool wall in victory. Manuel won gold, besting her competitors in the 100-meter freestyle race. Not only is Manuel the first African American to win an individual gold medal in swimming, she also set both Olympic and American records.

Her success is all the more amazing since more than half of all African-Americans can’t swim, and they are also three times as likely to drown as whites, startingly statistics directly tied to the nation’s fraught history of segregated swimming pools. By custom and law, Black residents were denied use of the municipal public pools. The pools were permanently closed or shut down — or drained and refilled — if a Black person made it into the water. In 1964 a motel manager in Saint Augustine, Fla., threw acid in a pool where five Black protestors had staged a swim-in. A photo of one of those screaming, shocked demonstrators — 17-year-old Mimi Jones of Roxbury — is an iconic image of the civil rights movement. After desegregation, Blacks who excelled in the sport had to figure out how to gain access to the private and pricy members-only clubs where swim meets are typically held.

I wonder how many talented Black swimmers turned away from the sport because it was too hard to swim against the current of so many obstacles.

But I also feel certain that Simone Manuel’s very presence in the Olympic pool will be inspiring. This weekend, when the 2021 Summer Games kick off, I’ll be watching — intentionally this time — hoping she can bring the gold home once again.