Story written by Rodney Grimes
The Rio 2016 Olympics allows this writer to reflect on several different issues, not the least of which is the rise to prominence of Black aquatic athletics. Recently we have from Olympic swimming freestyle gold medalist Simone Manuel, Ashleigh Johnson on the gold medal winning women’s water polo team and there are others.
Please allow this column to link the extraordinary accomplishments of these outstanding Olympic champions to the efforts of the Eastlake Park swimming team during the still somewhat segregated Phoenix of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s.
Let us start with the big picture. It has been an old negative story that blacks have a fear of water, with a corresponding inability to swim. Invariably when talking heads babble either on TV, radio or just small talk around the water cooler – the comments are usually blacks can’t swim, blacks don’t swim and blacks are afraid of water. Those of us who grew up around the Eastlake Park swimming pool during the late 1950’s, literally fall on the floor laughing at the mere thought that Blacks are afraid of water.
Fortunately, Simone Manuel’s historic 2016 Olympic 100 meter freestyle record setting win, and gold medal tie with Canadian Penny Oleksiak – plus the heroic efforts of Ashleigh Johnson as goalie on the USA Olympic gold medal women’s water polo peam, have sent those sentiments and comments to the same dustbin of history that contain the fragmented remnants of Blacks can’t play Major League Baseball, Blacks can’t play tennis, Blacks don’t play golf, Blacks can’t be an NFL quarterback or head coach, and Blacks can’t be a successful President of the United States.
During the late 1950’s as some of the African American baby boomers were coming of age and learning to swim (yes swim!), those of us who frequented Eastlake Park were to also face an additional challenge of learning to swim – competitively. It was during this time that Eastlake pool manager, William “Baby” Warren gave the green light to Kenny Grimes (a cousin) and Richard Minyard to start developing an AAU style competitive swimming team. I can only imagine that Warren took a good look around the Eastlake Pool and immediately noticed the adroit aquatic athletic skills and quick-study mentality of Richard Minyard, Robert “Butch” McKee, Burnell Blunt, Howard and Gary Pratt, Cecil Lackey, Leslie Wilson and so many others. Plus the strong coaching style of Kenny Grimes, Otto Hutchinson and Richard Minyard (player-coach) all must have signaled to Warren that Eastlake could possibly field a swim team that could compete Valley-wide. History will show that we competed with the best of them.
Since the Olympics in August, I have had discussions with several of the members of those Eastlake swim teams, Jimmy McKee, Rochelle Wilson, Burnell Blunt, Melvin Lewis, and others who have expressed a strong interest to meet (hopefully at Eastlake Park) sometime in October.
We hope to find any old documents, pictures and ribbons attesting to our ability to win swim meets not only at Harmon Park, Grant Park or Alkire – but also at University Park and Encanto Park. We want to invite all who were on one of those Phoenix Parks Swim Teams to meet with us, and any persons interested to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We will be planning a get-together to gather more information for a feature story in the Arizona Informant.