Jamal Hill competes in the final of the Men's 100m Freestyle during the British Swimming International meet on April 25, 2019 in Glasgow, Scotland.
Each Tuesday leading up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, which will be held in the summer of 2021, TeamUSA.org will introduce you to an athlete you should know prior to Tokyo – as part of the “Tokyo Tuesday” series. There’s a lot to learn on your quest to becoming the ultimate fan. Follow along on social media with the hashtag #TokyoTuesday.
One of the less visible ways communities of color suffer inequality is access to swimming instruction, something Paralympic hopeful Jamal Hill is hoping to change through the Swim Up Hill foundation he co-founded.
On Sept. 24, Hill will be hosting an hour-long Zoom videoconferencing event, “Aquatics in Los Angeles,” dedicated to improving drowning prevention, water competency and safety. Alongside four-time Olympic champion Janet Evans and other industry leaders, he will address topics such as the future of aquatics in L.A. leading up to the Olympic and Paralympic Games Los Angeles 2028, the need for new standards in basic aquatic education, and how Swim Up Hill will reach its goal of teaching one million people to swim in three years.
The postponement of the Tokyo Paralympic Games to 2021 was almost a blessing in disguise for Hill, who is looking to use his voice as an athlete and Swim Up Hill as platform for social change now more than ever.
“To have an extra year, well I’m not upset about it at all,” Hill said. “The drowning rates around the nation show that we have black and brown children drowning at almost three times the rate of white children, so I can use this extra time to help change that.”
When Hill first learned to swim as a child himself in a YMCA Mommy & Me program, and competitively by age 7, he had no idea he had a disability. He had a feeling that his body was different, as he struggled with some basic movements and was hospitalized for a few weeks as a young boy after becoming paralyzed when he got the flu.
“Before I was 10 years old, I could do certain things, and now things just don’t work,” he said. “I may not have been able to fit a name to it at first, and it wasn’t something I harped on, but if something in your body isn’t working, you know it.”
At age 10, he was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease (CMT), a hereditary neurological condition that can result in progressive loss of muscle tissue and touch sensation. Essentially, it weakened the muscles in his arms and legs, but he didn’t fully acknowledge it or tell anybody else about it until after college.
“My disability isn’t something most people can see,” Hill said. “I don’t fit the stigmatic view of disability or what people may consider a Para athlete to be. When I joined the Paralympic Movement, it allowed me to really own myself and my truth. I had really been hiding in the shadows and had never talked to anybody about my condition for 12 years, through competing, high school, and college. I never wanted to be the guy who wanted to make any excuses.”
Since earning his spot on the U.S. Paralympics Swimming National Team in 2018, Hill has won seven national titles in the S10 classification and came home with three medals from the 2019 Parapan American Games in Lima, Peru. He’s now ranked No. 1 in the nation in his classification and has steadily held his place in the top 10 in the world, making him a podium contender for next year.
Hill doesn’t mind the pressure one bit, even if he has to continue to drive nearly 100 miles a day round-trip from his home in Inglewood, California, to find a pool to train in.
“I haven’t been anxious or nervous or scared about the Games,” Hill said. “Sometimes the best things are the unexpected things that happen. Kind of like when you go in without expectations. So I’m going to just go in and be present in the moment without expectations. That’s easier said than done, but that’s really how I approach any competition.”
The 25-year-old is trying to do big things outside of competition, too, with Swim Up Hill’s goal of teaching one million people to swim through trainings, sponsors and a digital swim school platform. Cost of lessons, time, and access to pools are the three buckets he is working on with his colleagues to develop non-swimmers into competent swimmers in five hours or less.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, his team created an online program in partnership with Airbnb called Splash at Home, which has provided virtual experiences to more than 100 families on six different continents.
No matter how he fares or how many people he teaches to swim next year, Hill’s followers can certainly count on him to make a splash.
“I do big things, and I like to make big moves,” he said.