Changing the Face of Swimming: Notre Dame student-athlete leads effort to provide swim lessons to kids from all backgrounds

Author: Erin Blasko

Cason Wilburn (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)

As the son of a former college swimmer, Cason Wilburn was introduced to the water at a young age, before he could walk or even sit up.

“My mom taught me how to swim at like 6 weeks,” said Wilburn, a junior at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the men’s swimming and diving team. “She threw me in the water and made sure I was comfortable.”

Growing up in coastal Virginia, Wilburn, whose mom, Cassondre Wilburn, swam in college and later coached her son, started swimming competitively at the age of 4. He showed immediate promise, setting records for his age group and winning state titles. By the time he was a senior in high school, he owned a state record in the 100-meter freestyle and was competing for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.

But while he enjoyed the water, he could not help but notice something conspicuous about his fellow swimmers: They were all white.

“I was the only Black swimmer on my high school team,” Wilburn said. “I was the only Black swimmer on the national team in high school.”

Not one to ignore a problem, Wilburn organized swimming lessons for mostly Black youth in southeast Virginia as a way to attack the problem at the source by providing a safe and welcoming environment for kids of all backgrounds to learn about swimming and water safety from youthful mentors/instructors.

Now, after a couple of false starts because of the pandemic, he is offering the same opportunity to South Bend-area youth.

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