(Photo: Mark Reis)
After Jamal Hill touched the wall at the end of the 50-meter freestyle final at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo this summer, he didn’t turn around.
At least not at first.
“My plan was to never turn around, to be frank,” said the 26-year-old swimmer from Inglewood, California. “The reason for that was I spent the last five years working for this opportunity, this one moment, and I needed to just be proud of myself in that moment and for what I’d done, regardless of what the result was.”
So for a few seconds that felt like a lifetime, Hill simply appreciated what he’d accomplished in and of itself. It was a powerful moment, he said, but when the sound of his teammates yelling his name snapped him from his trance he had no choice but to finally look and see the results. He’d won the bronze medal.
“They don’t call your name if you came in fourth or worse,” Hill said.
Hill has had a long journey from experiencing paralysis as a 10-year-old and being diagnosed with the neurological condition Charcot-Marie-Tooth to accepting himself and sharing his disability with the world to becoming a Paralympic medalist. Hill’s life goals stretch way beyond simply making himself the best swimmer he can be, however.
Through his Swim Up Hill foundation, Hill has a goal of eventually being able to teach 1 million people to swim every year.
It’s a cause to which he decided to commit himself after winning his first national titles in 2018.
“I’d won these medals and stood on the podium and I couldn’t help but think, is this going to be it?” said Hill, who’d been inspired growing up by people such as Muhammad Ali. “Is this all I’m going to have to offer, another smiling face with medals? It just didn’t sit right. And so I knew, no, this isn’t just it. This isn’t all I have to offer.”
According to the CDC, about 4,000 people die from drowning every year in the U.S. Drowning death rates for Black people are 1.5 times higher than for white people, and in swimming pools in particular Black children between the ages of 10 and 14 drown at rates 7.6 times higher than white children.
Hill, who’s been a lifeguard and swim instructor since he was a teenager, knew the statistics, but he didn’t just want to teach kids how to swim. He wanted to teach people of all ages, especially those who’ve long been afraid of the water. He formed his organization, and they focused their efforts on building a curriculum that would begin with teaching basic skills and building students’ confidence on land before ever getting in a pool.
“Teaching them how to breathe, how to time their breath, the mechanics of a stroke and what it takes to push in water,” he said. “It’s hard to teach someone something when they’re terrified and uncomfortable, it doesn’t matter how simple it is. Swimming isn’t rocket science, but you have to meet people where they are at to get them to that place.”
Swim Up Hill teaches about 500 students in-house per year, Hill said. Beginning in February, they’ll start doing monthly events around town, partnering with Boys & Girls Clubs and other organizations. Eventually, they hope to license the Swim Up Hill method to cities, counties and schools throughout Los Angeles, then California, then beyond.
That’s how they hope to get to 1 million people learning to swim every year. Hill also hopes to help develop more Black people and people of color to become lifeguards.
As much as Hill’s passion lies in teaching others how to swim, though, watching a little kid swimming a lap for the first time isn’t a big thrill.
It’s great, to be sure; but for Hill, it’s kind of like a baby learning to walk. He knows they’re going to get there eventually.
Now give him an adult who’s spent a lifetime being afraid of the water, and it’s a different story.
“To experience people who’ve nearly drowned, or lost family members … one student survived Hurricane Katrina,” said Hill, who’s had students as old as 80. “His whole family was on the roof as the water was rising higher, and he couldn’t swim. He grew into this 6-foot-10 giant who refused to go in anything with water but a Jacuzzi. We took him through a traumatic healing experience to get him in the water, and three and a half hours later he’s doing an elementary breaststroke across the pool.
“That gets me fired up. Kids are great, but it’s not like my heart is just filled with joy every time it happens. Having people who’ve had these traumatic experiences and these wild stories who didn’t think swimming was ever going to be possible, those are the ones like, yeah, this is what it’s about.”
Meanwhile, Hill is continuing his own career in the pool.
There was a time not long before Tokyo when he talked confidently about continuing on not only to Paris but also Los Angeles in 2028. While he would love nothing more than to compete in front of the home crowd in seven years, he said, he’s now a bit more measured in his planning.
“Before I went to Tokyo I was talking a really big game,” he said. “It’s 100 percent still a long-term goal to represent in front of the hometown crowd, but after doing something like (Tokyo) you get sobered up, like, ‘I have to take this one day at a time.’”
No matter what happens, Hill said, one thing for certain is that he’s going to continue to get up and do his best every single day.
“Jamal seven years from now, I have no clue who he is or what he looks like or what he’s capable of, just like Jamal seven years ago had no idea what I’m capable of now,” Hill said. “I have no doubt that I’ll rise to the challenge and be a great representative not only of myself and Swim Up Hill and the LA community but also of our country and Team USA and the Para movement as a whole.”