Toni Davis

By Bob Schaller
Updated: March 11, 2005

Toni Davis had heard about this “Martiza Correia” and wanted to learn more about her.

“To be honest,” said Davis, a U.S. Paralympic swimmer, “I did not even know Martiza was black. Then I looked her up online, and there were all these stories about this black swimmer going to Athens. So we are out there.”

By “we,” Davis says she means black swimmers. Davis said she has been pounding the pavement since competing at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens to promote the sport and encourage minority swimmers to give the water a try.

“A lot of athletes get into the water for physical therapy coming back from an injury,” Davis said. “Once they get in, they realize how great it is, as a way of training.”

Davis said she recently saw a group of athletes testing the water.

“It was a football team, mostly black athletes,” she said. “Swimming is such a great way to get in shape, to build your endurance and strengthen your muscles. And who knows, maybe once someone is in the water and they find they have some talent, they can stick with it.”

Ah, football, and the other “major” sports – Davis said the media attention those sports get, plus the fact that she believes swimming is still seen, to a degree, as a “rich sport in the minority community,” have kept the growth of minority swimmers slower than it would otherwise be.

At the same time, Davis gets encouraged every time she is training with coach Solomon Robinson at her hometown club in Largo, Md., where she swims for an entirely black team. She said talking about the sport to minority kids – reaching them at a young age – is a key to stimulate growth in numbers, and also to let the kids know they have other options besides football, basketball and baseball at a young age. She also points out to kids that swimming is something they can do their whole life, whereas several other mainstream, more well-known sports, for the most part, have ending points as far as competitive participation.

“What we need to do for minority kids is have a program designed that is low-cost but gets them into the water, gets them the instruction they need, so they can see the opportunity is there,” Davis said. “That way they’ll also be able to find out if they have the ability.”

Davis, who has one arm, swam collegiately for Susquehannah Selinsgrove University in Pennsylvania, a Division III program. While she admits she’s still surprised when people do a double-take when they notice she’s black, she said she caught herself doing the same thing at the Middle Atlantic Conference Championship.

“I saw another black swimmer, and I went up to her,” Davis said. “I told her how neat it was to see another black swimmer, and she said, ‘Yeah, it’s cool.’ I’m not afraid to speak out and get black swimmers more attention, more participation. At the same time, I also want to get more notice for the Paralympics, because still it’s a case where not a lot of people even know this kind of competition and opportunity exists.”

Davis sees Michael Phelps as a great recruiting tool for swimmers of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

“Having someone like Michael is good for everyone to learn about swimming,” Davis said. “And who is Michael Phelps always mentioning as his sports role model? Michael Jordan, who is black. So this is something we can work toward together, just like in other sports.”

As Davis said, she still gets more attention for swimming with one arm than for the color of her skin. So while other black swimmers have to get used to swimming in a predominantly white environment, Davis’s attention comes for a different reason most times.

“Some people think they should be able to beat me – not because I’m black, but because I have just one arm,” she says laughing, “but I have made some able-bodied swimmers face the fact that they’ve gotten beat by a girl with one arm.”

And some day, Davis hopes the swimmers from her club back home in Maryland, and her teammates on the U.S. Paralymic Olympic squad, will be pointed at for the common bond they share, not the color of their kind, or how many limbs they have: But for the love of their sport.

“The thing is, I get more looks because I have one arm,” Davis said. “So maybe with that, and being black, I can reach even more people. At least that’s my goal.”