Jamal Hill steps onto the podium at the 2023 Para Swimming World Series in Minneapolis. (Photo: Jayme Halbritter)
Jamal Hill likes to joke that the first thing that used to come to mind when someone mentioned the United Nations was Austin Powers.
“You know that scene where Dr. Evil tells the United Nations he wants however many gajillion dollars,” Hill said, laughing. “I mean, growing up, the U.N. wasn’t part of the core curriculum or anything. I understood it in principle, but I couldn’t tell you anything about it.”
Hill can certainly tell you a lot about it now.
If you know anything about the 2020 Paralympian, you know that swimming is just one of the things he does. His ever-growing list of endeavors now includes being one of 17 worldwide appointees to the United Nations Young Leaders for Sustainable Development Goals initiative.
Earlier this year he spoke at the United Nations headquarters in New York for the first time and will fly back to New York for another engagement following the Para swimming world series event that wrapped up this past weekend in Minneapolis.
“It’s pretty surreal,” said Hill, an Inglewood, California, native and bronze medal winner in the 50-meter freestyle at the Tokyo Games.
Hill’s connection to the United Nations began over a year ago after he launched a media platform and podcast, Aquatics Today, for aquatics professionals discussing best practices, trends and resources in the industry. Along with that, he started a summit series and reached out to people from a wide range of industries to speak on their areas of expertise.
One of the people he contacted for a summit on equity and uniting communities through swimming was Jayathma Wickramanayake, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth.
“She was kind enough to lend her voice to the campaign and did a wonderful interview about activating youth and ways to encourage youth to be more engaged,” Hill said. “Afterward, her team kept sending me information about this U.N. Young Leaders program.”
The Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals initiative appoints 17 young leaders from across the globe from more than 5,000 applicants every two years. They are chosen based on their “agency, courage and ingenuity in finding lasting solutions to the world’s greatest challenges.”
Hill, who has a neurological condition that affects the muscles in his arms and legs called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, is a highly engaged advocate for reducing accidental drownings through swimming education with his Swim Up Hill Foundation. He assumed the program was asking him to share the information with his networks.
“Finally, we were on the phone and they said, ‘Have you thought about this program?’ and I said, ‘Yes, I send it to young people all the time,’” Hill said.
Little did Hill know, young people for the program means ages 17-29. They wanted Hill, who is 28, to apply himself.
Hill applied and was eventually named one of only two appointees from the United States. Earlier this year he found himself on stage at the General Assembly Hall in New York speaking about drowning as one of the leading causes of death globally among children and young people up to the age of 24.
In the United States, it’s the leading cause of death among children 1 to 4, and the second-leading cause of unintentional injury death for children 5 to 9. The risk of drowning increases dramatically in economically disadvantaged communities and communities of color.
The Swim Up Hill Foundation seeks to reduce those numbers by providing innovative and culturally relevant swim instruction to low and middle-income people of color across the U.S. and the world.
“I was surprised at how surprised they were (to hear the statistics),” Hall said of the crowd of mostly U.S. senators and legislators that he addressed during his panel. “But I guess that’s part of the problem.”
Hill presented at a global youth leadership summit in New York in April, then headed to Switzerland as a representative of the U.N. to speak at a symposium where one of the things he discussed is Swim Up Hill and his goal of teaching one million children to swim before the Paralympics Games Paris 2024.
As if all that wasn’t enough, Hill has also been on a tour to share his new children’s book called “Sammy Swims.” It’s the marquee project of the Swim Up Hill Foundation this year, and the book is about a young boy who gets invited to a pool party but doesn’t know how to swim. He’s afraid, but then a Paralympic swimmer named Jamal Hill comes to Sammy’s school and teaches him how to swim. Sammy has a blast at the pool party and then encourages his family to also learn to swim.
Hill is visiting 100 elementary schools and youth organizations in Southern California this spring to talk about disability awareness, swimming and the power of believing in yourself. Each student gets a copy of the book, and teachers get a guide as well as a printable coloring book.
Each student will also have the opportunity to enroll in the Swim Up Hill program and learn to swim at no cost to the family.
All the while, Hill is working toward making his second Paralympic team and competing in Paris next summer.
He swam in all the freestyle events last week in Minneapolis, a meet that also serves as a classifying opportunity for this year’s world championships. On the first day of competition, he took third in the men’s 100-meter freestyle before following it up with a second-place finish in the men’s 50 free the following day.
“I’m feeling really good about it, honestly,” Hill said. “I’m just at peace with everything. I love what I do. People always say, ‘I don’t know how you find time to do all these things,’ but for me, if I wasn’t doing all these things, I probably wouldn’t be swimming.
“Not that swimming fast isn’t great, but swimming fast isn’t changing too many peoples’ lives. I think we really have to work to place emphasis on what the true value of a champion is. It’s great to swim fast, but if you’re not championing a cause, if you being elevated doesn’t elevate or provide voice to the voiceless, is it really worth anyone’s time?”