From the English Channel to Senegal’s Goree Island, Buffalo’s Charles Chapman, Jr., world championship marathon swimmer, continues to make history and shatter the myth that ‘Black men can’t swim…’ “Jordan by land Tuna by sea They just don’t know about me…”
-Charles Chapman, Jr.
BUFFALO, NEW YORK — Charles Chapman, Jr. is Buffalo’s gift to the world of sports. But, sadly, this city has yet to recognize the living treasure in its midst. Even as a dominating young swimmer at the YMCA, and as a record holder on Lafayette High’s swim team in the seventies where Chapman led his all Black team to win the city’s swimming championship, few noticed him.
“We were breaking down stereotypes way back then,” he reflects. When he won a swimming scholarship to Los Angeles City College, swam his first official marathon race in San Francisco Bay, and later barely missed the U.S. Olympic swim team in 1976, there was little fanfare.
Still, Chapman continued to make waves, forging through life with the same power and grit he exhibited each time he performed his trademark butterfly stroke, a technique he describes as “the ultimate endurance stroke in the world.”
Chapman holds both the world record for the butterfly around Alcatraz Island and Manhattan Island and the two fastest times in history around Manhattan Island. Because of his skills and strength in the water, and his ability to swim all day like a fish, he was given the nickname “Tuna” from training mates. Chapman, a world class athlete, and the first African American marathon swimmer, finally made history when he became the first Black man to swim the English Channel in 1981 — a distance of 37.5 treacherous miles — in 12 minutes and 30 seconds.
The talented young hero received more coverage in Great Britain than he did in his hometown newspaper. Two years later, in 1983, he made another historic swim, this time around shark-infested Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park in San Francisco. The first Black person to swim around the island and the first person to ever make it solely using the difficult butterfly stroke, he clocked a new world record of one minute and 30 seconds for the 3.5 mile swim.
In fact, he has set at least four world records for swimming — single-handedly shattering the racist myth that Blacks couldn’t swim well because their bodies’ muscle-to-fat ratio didn’t provide the necessary buoyancy. Yet, he’s received more resolutions, proclamations, and citations from the state of California than the town he grew up in. “The Tuna” kept on swimming, with each feat hoping to gain the recognition he deserved in the sport many critics said “Blacks weren’t made for.” In 1988, he set yet another record when he swam around Manhattan in a 28.5 mile swim in 9 hours, 25 minutes and 8 seconds, exclusively using the butterfly stroke.
Although Chapman has yet to grace a cereal box or receive a big-time endorsement paycheck, he has refused to allow anything to stop him from achieving. And his dream of serving as a role model in the sport of swimming to young Black children is still very much alive. He recalls coaching a swim team at School #28 and the potential he saw in the children. One youngster he coached stands out in his memory. “There is a 10-year-old swimmer there by the name of David Tatum and he’s awesome,” Chapman exclaimed. “Remember that name. He’s going to be a serious swim champion. At 10, he’s already won over 60 trophies.”
Today, at 47 — an age where most swimmers are long past their competition stage — Chapman is still moving through the water with grace and power. A movie about his record-setting swim around Manhattan Island is under consideration. And he’s planning perhaps his most symbolic, far-reaching swim to date: through the Doorway of No Return on the Island of Goree to Senegal.
Goree is the point in West Africa from which millions of Africans were shipped to America in chains during the Atlantic slave trade. The date has been tentatively set for August 15th. “Goree is part of my manifest destiny,” Chapman told The Challenger. “This is what I was born to do…It’s a spiritual journey and it’s significant that we’re coming from Buffalo, the last stop on the Underground Railroad, to return to Goree Island in Africa, the last stop before leaving our homeland…God has given me the vision to complete the swim,” he continued, “to return on the wings of a butterfly…” He said he would like to take a relative of Harriet Tubman on the return trip to symbolize the completion of the journey. Tubman heroically freed hundreds of enslaved Africans on the “Underground Railroad,” which ran through Buffalo. “The beauty of this swim,” he enthused, “is that we’re starting from Buffalo, …taking it to the world stage…We have a date with time and destiny…to represent those who came before usï¿½This is our history…This is 360 degrees.”
Charlie’s return to Africa to swim from Goree has been 10 years in the making. He just cleared all the diplomatic channels last summer thanks to the efforts of Mike Cole in Congressman Jack Quinn’s office. It was through Quinn’s office that Secretary of State Colin Powell was contacted. And it was Powell’s office which helped Chapman to get permission from the Senegalese government. Also helpful in his quest, said Chapman, were Joe DiPasquale and Joseph G. Giambra from the Small Business Development Center at Buffalo State College; Deputy Speaker Arthur O. Eve; Legislator George “Butch” Holt (who is in the process of trying to get him a sponsor); Roland Rogers, formerly of Buffalo, and CEO of BlackAthlete Sports Network out of New York City; and his pastor/ teacher Troy Bronner of Elim Christian Fellowship.
His mother, Catherine Chapman, whom he cares for, is perhaps his biggest fan. “She’s been my inspiration and in my corner always,” said Chapman, who began swimming at age two. His sister, Margo, a former track star who ran with Wilma Rudolph, inspired him to take up sports. Charlie trains at the University of Buffalo four days a week, where he is a senior majoring in Recreation. He also holds an Associates Degree from Sacramento State College and presently teaches aquatic swimming at the Northwest Buffalo Community Center. “I’m just excited about returning to the Motherland,” he said. “My dad (the late Charles Chapman) always considered himself a king,” he said. “He used to always talk of kings.” Charlie plans to pay tribute to his father on the trip, as well as to the millions of Africans who lost their lives in the Middle Passage.
What runs through the mind of this marathon swimmer as he traverses the water for hours at a time? “It’s like I’m having church in the water,” said the highly spiritual Chapman. “I’m praising God and enjoying the sights and sounds around me…being one with the water like a wave… When I’m in the water, all I feel is peace and power…” And sharks? “I have no fear,” he responds. “I’ve been bitten by land sharks, but no sharks in the sea ever bit me…”
Charlie still talks about putting Buffalo on the map (“Buffalo has an opportunity to be put in a positive lightï¿½This is a positive journey,” he said), even though his hometown has been less than appreciative of his accomplishments. “The worst thing is to be a champion and not be recognized,” reflected Chapman, who resides in the heart of the community in the city’s historic Hamlin Park area. “By hiding me so well, they’ve let the myth [that Blacks can't excel in swimming] live on.” But his disappointment is short-lived. He’s ready to make history again, he says, this time, perhaps, the most important historical statement of his career so far. “The swim will be a unifying one, connecting Blacks in America with their African ancestors. Many slaves threw themselves from the slave ships rather than be taken alive through the Passage…I want to honor our fallen ancestors with this swim — and I want to inspire Black youth around the world to dare to be different, to set high goals, and to never stop trying in any endeavor. I’ve been blessed with a special gift to do marathon swimming, and I have a social and spiritual responsibility to share all that I have with others.” Everything is in place for the “butterfly’s” return…