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Race for Representation: Olivia Jack

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

Olivia Jack is a Vincentian-American swimmer on the Penn State Women's Swimming and Diving team, and the Vincentian National Team. Her mother is from the United States, whose parents are German and Italian. Her dad is from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, a chain of islands in the southern portion of the Caribbean Islands. Jack is the oldest of four children. She was born in Saginaw, Michigan and moved to Barbados shortly after her birth for around 2 years. Jack then lived in Brooklyn, New York for around 5 years, and is now in upstate New York- in Schenectady county. When Jack lived in Barbados, she was very little, but her mom made a point to go to the beach everyday with her and strengthen her love for the water. Her mother swam in high school, and also throughout her time in Barbados while she was pregnant with Jack. Jack thinks that is where her love for swimming came from and is one of the reasons she started swimming. Her parents put herself and her siblings into swimming because as Vincentian-Americans, they visit family in the Caribbean often. They wanted them to be safe in the ocean, and strong enough swimmers to be able to combat most currents. Jack decided to continue swimming and started competitively swimming at the age of seven. Since then, she has set childhood YMCA records, competed at YMCA Nationals from the age of twelve to fourteen, and competed at USA Junior National meets from the age of fourteen to seventeen. At each of the national meets, Jack made finals in at least one of the events, and top 16 quite often in her favorite- the 100 breaststroke. She now swims for Penn State Women's Swimming and Diving team where she is a sprinter on the team. This fall will be the first semester of her junior year at Penn State.

What are your earliest memories of swimming?

My earliest memory of swimming is at a YMCA State meet, when I was eight years old. When I was younger, I swam a lot of backstroke- an event I need more work on today. There's this idea in swimming that if you swim backstroke, you don't swim breaststroke, and vise-versa. Today the 100 breaststroke is my best event, and the 100 back is probably my worst. As I said, it needs work. Anyway, at the meet, I remember being so happy- I loved the sport, and I loved winning.

Winning was really the driving motivator when I was younger. I have been raised to be competitive.

At this meet, there's a video my Mom captured of me smiling and waving at my parents before my race- a video I look at to remind myself of the happiness swimming brings me when I start to doubt my abilities.

I remember enjoying swimming and being somewhat oblivious to the fact that my dad, my siblings and I were the only Black people- or one of the few- in the entire New York State YMCA Swimming championships.

At that point, it didn't matter to me. I was winning, and I was happy. My parents made sure I always felt like I belonged at those meets. At the meet, I set a couple of age-group records. Looking back, I realize that I stood out because of the color of my skin. However, I think through my success, I changed the narrative and the reason why I stood out. My parents instilled that confidence in me to feel as though I could do so.

What do you think is the biggest reason for your success?

My parents and their dedication to my life and my siblings' lives is the biggest reason for my success. Not only have my parents worked above and beyond to make sure we are all happy and healthy, they have worked tirelessly to give us all the best opportunities for success. I think what has driven my success as a student-athlete in the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State is the amount of support I have felt from my parents. The support has not been a generic "high-five" every time I do something well, though. It is what some might call"tough love." Something my dad has always told me is that he is not here to tell me all the things I am doing right- I can figure that part out on my own. He is a parent, teaching me what not to do based on his experience and wisdom. My dad, a Black lawyer for New York State and immigrant from Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, traveled with me to every national meet I competed at. He did this because he loves me and he supports me. Seeing his face in the stands has always given me a sense of belonging when I am competing in a sport where at a meet, I am most likely one of the few Black swimmers there.

So often, I can count on one hand how many Black swimmers are at meets, including myself.

Seeing my dad's face, and hearing his voice has made me feel as though I belong in a sport where I could feel so alone. That support has influenced my success.

Additionally, my mother started and coached the swim team in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. She has been such an inspiration to me in how caring she is, and how supportive she is of others' endeavors regardless of their differences. She has influenced my success in so many ways. One of the strongest ways she has influenced me is in reminding me of my love for the sport. She always reminds me, too, that as long as I am happy and working hard, the success will come in time.

At the end of the day, I would say that the reason for my success is the love and commitment to my interests, which have been reinforced by the support and love I receive from my parents.

What's your favorite memory as a swimmer?

My favorite memory as an older swimmer is when I swam my fastest time ever, 1:00.58, or a minute and 58 tenths of a second, in my favorite event- the 100-yard breaststroke. This was at my last meet with my club team my senior year of high school. I had been working for years to swim under a minute in that event, and even though I didn’t, I knew that I had put my heart and soul into the process of swimming that time.

Swimming my best time was not the highlight, though. I felt most successful with the fact that I had fully committed myself to a goal, and when the time came, I was so relaxed that I knew I was ready for whatever outcome came. I had earned it.

I am the swimmer that dances behind the blocks, in her warm-ups until 20 seconds before her race, dancing until I am told to be still. That race specifically, I remember being so in the zone of the song I was listening to (I listened to J. Cole on repeat throughout that meet, he is in my top three list of favorite artists) that I had to be tapped on the shoulder and told it was my heat to swim by the timer in my lane. I was so relaxed about it too, not jumpy at all, just ready.

What advice would you give to a young girl that is interested in swimming, but doesn't know where to start?

To any and every girl interested in swimming, come see me! I would love to meet you and tell you all about my days as a girl in the swimming world and hear your questions and concerns.

I would tell girls, especially Black girls, that they are just as capable of success in swimming as any other girl or boy of any other race or ethnicity. The term "athlete" is not coined towards a specific race or gender- it is a noun with no specificity regarding the origin, skin color, or gender of a person. "Athlete" is a noun used to categorize a person, any person, into a field where those with elite physical abilities belong. A swimmer is an athlete, a girl swimmer is an athlete, and a Black girl that swims is an athlete. Embrace your sport, you belong.

It can be hard not seeing anyone who looks like you in something that you spend so much time doing. When that time comes and you're overwhelmed by a feeling of not fitting in, reach out to your parents, and me- I am always available for some uplifting and positivity.

Have you ever been judged on your appearance rather than your ability?

I am a mixed woman in a predominantly white sport- being judged on my appearance is something I have honestly become numb to. In swimming, we wear skin-tight suits, especially in competitions, because it makes us more aqua-dynamic.

When I was younger, and still today, my hair is a part of my appearance that is commonly commented on. I have received suggestions to cut my curls because "it would make the swim cap fit on my head better." I am asked at every pool I attend how I fit my afro into a cap. I do it the same way anyone else would- put my hair up and put the cap on.

As a younger swimmer, that was the main question I received. I was a tall and thin swimmer; I honestly looked like a tree branch. As I have grown older, my body has changed. I have developed a curved, lean body that has more muscle than a woman who isn't involved in swimming might have. My height is normal for my sport. I am 5'10" and my teammates, for the most part, are within two to four inches of my height. However, my legs are bigger and my butt is bigger than many swimmers. I have received many comments on the size of my legs specifically, and many ask if I ran track. I did run track in high school, however, I have been swimming for around thirteen years.

My body is not the "typical swimmer body" and so I am often questioned and judged on that as opposed to my ability. I would say I receive one comment on my ability in swimming for every seven or eight comments on my body type.

That difference has developed the most over the past couple of years as many of my peers assume that I run track and believe my body would fit better in that sport than swimming.

Emma Anderson and yourself have been working together to spread awareness about social injustices through physical activity with your Athletes for Equal Rights campaign. Why is this mission important to you as a Black female athlete and what can others do to support the cause?

Emma Anderson, a rising senior soccer player at Niskayuna High school created a website as an ally for the Black Lives Matter movement early in June. I reached out to her soon after, wanting to be involved in her website, and wanting to help her in any way I can. Athletes for Equal Rights is a platform for athletes to utilize to be involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in a way that is closest to our daily lives- through athletics.

There are three main sections to the website: workouts, stories, and ways to get involved. The workouts are open to all athletes, whether involved in collegiate or high school sports or just a person involved in fitness. Each daily workout is connected to a statistic about racial injustice. While anyone is doing the workout, they can think about the statistic and brainstorm ideas of bringing more awareness to the issue that they could be involved in or initiate. The involvement section of the website is a place where people can see other websites or pages we are collaborating with to find more information, as well as forms that can be filled out to (1) send in statistics and workouts they would like to be included on the site; (2) requests to type out written explanations of a statistic they have research and; (3) send in their stories. The third form option is open specifically to black athletes. The third main section of the website is the stories of Black athletes. Professional Black athletes have more of a platform in the media, however that platform is racially limited in some cases as well. However, our website grants Black athletes of any caliber to write about experiences or stories they would like to talk about, in any format, free of judgement, on a safe platform. Too often athletes, especially collegiate and professional, have to question whether or not they can speak their minds because their image represents a school or team. This portion of the site is a safe space for all athletes to do just that, without worry.

This mission is extremely important to me as a Black female athlete because it is a platform that every athlete should have. As an athlete, I have some form of privilege when compared to the Black students at my school. The athletes at colleges are so often what is focused on in the media surrounding colleges, and so if Black athletes use that privilege and direct the media's conversation regarding the social unrest of the Black community in this nation, we might have the power to help our fellow Black students have the platform as well. Until everyone knows what the Black athletes they support on weekends, on their televisions while watching athletic competitions, are going through on a daily basis as people, total and complete support for the athlete, as a person and participant in sports, is not possible.

There is a common stereotype that black athletes are successful and skilled because of the color of their skin. The hard work, passion, and commitment often is downplayed. Have you experienced this stereotype and what is your response?

Too often, people have this idea that when someone is born Black, they are natural athletes at birth. I genuinely wonder where this idea comes from- it basically insinuates that every Black person in the world is athletic. If that was true, the number of Black people in sports would be much higher, wouldn't it? That conception is similar to that of all Asians being academically successful. Is there something special about an Asian person's brain that they are born to be smart? These are genuine questions I have when ideas like this come up.

I personally believe that people have talent in physical fitness, that is not tied to their race. However, it is not talent that makes an athlete but rather the amount of effort and time that is put into the physical activity they are involved in. Otherwise, there would be no 6:00 AM swim practice, nor practice six days of the week. The talent would be enough in that case. Serena Williams is talented. She did not become as successful as she is today off of that talent alone. She worked very hard.

So, when people say Blacks are born athletes, are they also excusing us from the practices of our sports? Because if we are born athletes, we should be able to beat anyone, be better than other athletes of other races, without practicing the sport once in our life. That simply is not possible and is not the case.

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