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Jamal Hill: How Giving Back To The Community Has Made Me The Athlete I Am Today

By Jamal Hill | Feb. 01, 2021, 8:54 a.m. (ET)

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. 

 

My name is Jamal Hill. I’m a Paralympic swimmer, two-time 2018 national freestyle champion and three-time medalist at the 2019 Parapan American Games. My goal is to represent Team USA at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 this summer and to stand on the podium. I’m also the co-founder of Swim Up Hill, a nonprofit that provides an efficient, cost-effective, learn-to-swim method to help people in underserved communities around the globe become 100% safe in the water. My goal is to teach a million people to swim.

As a Paralympic hopeful and an entrepreneur, I know I could not do one without the other.

Five years ago, I decided to quit college and chase my dream of becoming a Paralympic swimmer. Growing up in Los Angeles, I learned to swim when I was very young, and I loved it. When I was 10, I was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth, CMT, a hereditary neurological condition that can result in the progressive loss of muscle tissue and touch sensation. My parents, Sandra and JB, encouraged me to use my diagnosis as an opportunity to overcome challenges and inspire others. I pushed through the pain of being seen and treated differently and swam competitively through high school, receiving a swimming scholarship to Hiram College in Ohio. 

After three years, I dropped out and moved back to California to train under the University of Southern California’s Dave Salo and USC’s prestigious Trojan Elite Swim Team. Everyone around me thought I was making the wrong decision. But I had an amazing support system, including my parents, and I had strong belief—in myself and in God’s path for me.

When I made the U.S. Paralympic Team in 2018, I wanted my career to be more than just winning medals and having people be happy for me. I draw inspiration from the likes of Muhammad Ali and Colin Kaepernick, and I knew I needed to leverage my love for swimming to serve others, to really create a larger impact. 

More than 360,000 people drown around the world every year, and as a swimmer and lifeguard—and human being—I wanted to change this statistic.

My coach and I decided we were going to lower the drowning rate by teaching a million people how to swim. That’s the foundation for Swim Up Hill. But we were not going to teach swimming using the traditional methods. The big barriers to learning to swim are cost and access. But I think cost and time are bigger blockers than access. So we developed a learn-to-swim curriculum that teaches people age 4 and up how to swim in five hours (traditional methods can take weeks, sometimes months). 

Right now, we’re focused on teaching people in underserved communities in Los Angeles with Swim Up Hill’s curriculum. It’s my city, my work—and it’s literally integrated with my swimming. It brings life to me and is the reason I get out of bed every morning.

I also want to use my athletic platform for social justice. Sports are great, but sports are not what matters in the world. People are what matter in the world. And justice is what is going to change the tide. 

That’s what it’s about for me — to not only be a beacon of hope and inspiration as an athlete, but to change what needs to be changed to bring equality to the world. People can improve their own situations, but so much of the world has been set up systemically to make it hard, if not impossible, for people to acquire the skills and knowledge that they need. My expertise is swimming, so I used my knowledge to create an accessible education program so people are protected against accidental drowning.

How did I come up with this dream? 

A lot of athletes think they have to be cutthroat to be the best. But one of my favorite sayings is that the biggest fish in the ocean isn’t the fastest fish in the ocean. Everyone is always so focused on being number one, like you’re only valuable if you’re number one. But you are a convergence of skillsets and attributes. Each person is their own complex character who brings energy and inspiration to the world. It’s not just the fastest person who deserves to make a difference.

But believe me, I also want to be the fastest person! And I plan to be in Tokyo this summer. Representing Team USA on the world stage is a dream that I never really thought was possible. I have a chance to be immortalized in the history books. But when I dive into the pool and stand on the podium, the world will not just see Team USA. I believe that they will see my family, my friends, my community. Life is like a recipe. You could have eight out of the 10 ingredients that you need. But unless you get those last two ingredients, you're not going to make what it is that you're trying to make. My team is those last two key ingredients. I just happen to be the face of it.

When you support Team USA, your donations provide another key ingredient for my athlete recipe. And the support of the American people means more now than ever before. As a Black American, I feel as though the narrative is changing to truly include my life as valuable in the American fabric—beyond sports and entertainment. To see millions of American people rise and stand against injustice and bigotry has provided me with a sense of support that I don’t think my predecessors fully believed in or trusted. 

It is truly an honor to represent my country knowing that I have your full backing. I hope I can make you proud in Tokyo.

And to keep up with me, follow @swimuphill on Instagram!

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Jamal Hill

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