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Paralympic medalist Jamal Hill has a mission to teach millions of children to swim

Hill, born with a neurological condition, is a 2023 ESPYS nominee for the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award

When Sandra Floyd-Hill was a young girl growing up in Compton, California, she was destined to be a decorated athlete. To let her family tell it, and Floyd-Hill, a standout at Compton High School, was the next great American in track and field.

But Floyd-Hill’s mother, a woman of her time, didn’t believe it was a lady’s place to compete in competitive sports, or any sports for that matter – including a swimming pool. Floyd-Hill’s three brothers were allowed to take swimming lessons, but she and her younger sister were forbidden. Little girls, her mother’s thinking went, were vulnerable in such environments.

So Floyd-Hill never learned to swim until some decades later when she was taught by a young Black Paralympic medalist swimmer.

Her son.

That son, Jamal Hill, would go on to found his own organization, the Swim Up Hill Foundation, which has a mission of teaching a million children a year how to swim using a swimming instruction method that Hill developed.

Hill was born with a neurological condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. He won a bronze medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo. He created all of this to help children with disabilities like him. Hill also created the organization for children like his mother, who through fear or a multitude of other reasons never learned how to swim, and for Black children, who die at alarming rates from drowning.

Hill is a nominee for the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award at The ESPYS (Wednesday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC). The award is given to an athlete whose “continuous, demonstrated leadership has created a measured positive impact on their community through sports. The candidate must embrace the core principles that Muhammad Ali embodied so well, including confidence, conviction, dedication, giving and respect.”

Jamal Hill poses with his swimming medals.

Jamal Hill/Swim Up Hill Foundation

Unlike his mother, swimming was the first sport Hill ever participated in. At 10 months old, his mother enrolled him in a Mommy and Me swim class. By the age of 6, Hill was competing on an organized swim team for the first time.

But then on Thanksgiving 2005, when Hill was 10 years old, his limbs went numb at the dinner table. He couldn’t pick up his fork or knife. He couldn’t lift his hands.

His parents took him to the hospital, where doctors ran countless tests and scans. By this point, Hill was in a “full paralytic state,” he told Andscape. He was transferred to the local children’s hospital, where after additional tests, doctors discovered that Hill had Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease.

Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, named after the doctors who discovered it, is a rare hereditary neurological disorder (approximately 19 instances per 100,000 people) that damages the body’s peripheral nervous system. Those with the condition can lose the sensation of touch or pain in their arms and legs. Hill has CMT one X, which means from his elbow to his fingertips he has 30% sensation (“I don’t text in bed with my phone over my face”) and from his kneecaps the soles in his feet, he has zero percent nerve capacity. Balancing, sitting and standing up, and walking are all a struggle.

“It feels like I’m walking around on stilts,” Hill said. “My knees are my feet, and from my knees to my feet are my stilts.”

The disease gives Hill more drag in the water. He has to focus and concentrate on his arms and legs, as he has next-to-no feel of them when he swims. When he kicks his feet — from his hip rather than his legs — they crash into each other constantly. He tries to create enough force from this motion to still make his feet snap under the water.

“There’s still a crack,” Hill said, “even though I don’t actually have any muscle generation or any neurological connection down there.”

Hill’s parents, who he says handled the diagnosis “like rock stars,” decided to not tell him he had the disease for a very particular reason.

“They didn’t want me living this life of, ‘Now I can only do this, this, and this and this because I have this disease, and this is what people with this disease are able to do,’ ” he said. “I was living with it. I knew some s— was wrong, but I didn’t have the privilege of being able to shovel the responsibility of my life on to anyone else.”

Paralympic swimmer Jamal Hill works with a student.

Jamal Hill/Swim Up Hill Foundation

By 2018, Hill was winning his first Paralympic national swimming medals, taking first place in the 50- and 100-meter freestyle races, and second in the 100-meter backstroke. While standing on the podium with one of the medals around his neck, he had an epiphany.

“This is great, but is this it? Is this all that I kind of have to look forward to?” he asked himself. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m a handsome guy and I look even better with a gold medal around my neck. But is this all I have to offer to my family, to my community, to the world at large?”

The spoils of winning a national championship (endorsement deals, enough money to get him and his mom out of the ’hood) were great, but it didn’t make a tangible difference in anyone’s life but his own. Hill was aware of the difference between Black and white access to swimming pools and the rate of Black and white deaths from drowning.

So, on that podium, it became Hill’s mission to solve this problem.

“There needs to be some greater good,” he said of winning the national championship. “There needs to be some opportunity for this to actually benefit others.”

The Swim Up Hill Foundation became official two years later in 2020. Hill created it to prevent drownings, particularly in low-income and Black communities, and to make swimming education accessible for all races and abilities. Through the foundation, Hill and his team developed a five-hour curriculum (the “Swim Up Hill” method) designed to teach just about anyone how to swim.

“We brought people who identified or had family members that identified as having a fear of water,” Hill said. “People who had nearly drowned, or had drowned non-fatally, or had just never been to water, because [their] grandma’s grandma said that that’s where the jujus lived.”

For the first two hours of the curriculum, participants never step inside a pool. They learn all the basic skills (breathing, forward motion, lying horizontal in the water, etc,) with three household items: a bowl, a bench and a bucket. Once they get those mechanics down, they’re ready for the real deal. When they enter the pool, they know how to balance themselves and keep water out of their noses.

Through this method, Hill and his team realized this initiative could go far beyond just helping those afraid of the water.

“This works for people who don’t have access to coaches. This works for people who don’t have access to swimming pools,” Hill said. “This works for people who don’t have, you know, the, what they consider to be the expendable time or money to invest in swim lessons and even start these conversations and begin down this road of safety and enlightenment.”

Swim Up Hill Foundation founder Jamal Hill (left) visits children at Stagg Street Elementary in Van Nuys, California.

Jamal Hill/Swim Up Hill Foundation

For Hill, there was an inherent knowledge of the discrepancies in who knows and doesn’t know how to swim. At his all-Black high school, he was the only one who participated in competitive swimming. When he attended all-Black swim parties, no one got into the pool. On those swim teams, Hill was usually one of two Black children.

“Everybody called me Denzel,” Hill said, referring to actor Denzel Washington.

“It wasn’t like a derogatory thing. It was just like, ‘oh, what a cute little chocolate man. Like, what a cute little chocolate boy. You do kind of look like a little Denzel, don’t you?’ ”

As he got older, Hill began to learn why he was one of a few Black faces in swimming. He heard that Black people believe they’re physically incapable of swimming and the racist notion that Black people’s bones are too dense to float. Beyond the stereotypes, though, lay legitimate reasons some Black people don’t swim: They weren’t allowed to or their parents never learned to or they had nearly drowned in the past.

“This is like a literal roadblock for their mental capacities and ability,” he said. “They believe they can’t do it.”

The numbers bear it out. A 2022 survey from Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago found that only 46% of Black children have had swimming lessons compared with 72% of white children. Studies have found that Black children are more likely to drown than their white counterparts. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a fear of drowning is one of multiple factors that can contribute to a lack of swimming knowledge in Black children.

Hill’s mother didn’t know how to swim, neither did his maternal grandmother. Floyd-Hill didn’t learn to swim until Hill taught her a few years ago (“I’ve never seen my father swim, but he assures me he can”). If not for the Mommy and Me class when he was still an infant, Hill likely would be one of the nearly 60% of Black kids who can’t swim.

Instead, he’s now partnering with more than 100 schools within the Los Angeles Unified School District to spread his method through visits to the schools, a free swim class, and Hill’s children’s book, Sammy Swims. He’s also collaborated with the USA Swimming Foundation and the United Nations to make swimming education more accessible across the globe.

He estimates he will reach his goal of teaching 1 million people annually by 2028.

While the accomplishments speak for themselves, Hill’s mark of true success will be if he has a job or not in a few years.

“Our mission was to ultimately go out of business with the Swim Up Hill Foundation,” he said. “The issue is drowning, so once we solve this issue, there are systems in place, and drowning is a thing of the past, we should go out of business.”

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"