For most of her life, Tara Johnson-Drayton stayed on the pool deck, watching others play in the water below. Limited access to pools and her brother’s drowning were just a few of the reasons she never learned to swim. “My mom never learned, her mom never learned, none of her siblings learned to swim,” she said. Johnson-Drayton, who is African American, isn’t alone.

In part because of historic institutional racism, 64 percent of African American children have no or low swimming ability, according to a 2017 study by the USA Swimming Foundation. That’s compared to 45 percent of Hispanic kids and 40 percent of white kids. Understanding the importance of water safety, Johnson-Drayton sent her three kids to swim lessons, but she still never put a toe in the water.

That was until last December when she discovered the Mahogany Mermaids a swim team based in Charlotte geared toward more mature African American swimmers. The team not only gives women of color a safe place to swim; for some, it’s helping their swimming fears float away. Johnson-Drayton said she had never heard of an African American swimming group for adults. “So when I heard of the Mahogany Mermaids I was like, I want to be a part of that,” she said.

Now, for Johnson-Drayton, that fear of the water has been replaced with joy. At the age of 49, she’s learned to swim and become a competitive swimmer.

Tara Johnson-Drayton at swim practice.