Her affirmations were calming and encouraging: “You can do this…you’re not afraid…that’s a great boy.”
Swimming instructor Agnes Davis has a knack for knowing how to individualize her instructions to nervous kids and adults. On a Sunday morning at Hostos Community College’s swimming pool in the Bronx, New York, Davis supported 5-year-old Kamren‘s back, as he learned how to relax and float in 3-feet deep water.
Kam is learning skills that could save his life. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a significant disparity in accidental pool drownings between Black and White children. Black kids aged 5 to 9 drown 5.5 times more than their White counterparts. The disparity is greatest at ages 11 to 12, where Black children drown in swimming pools at 10 times the rate of White children.
Nicole Pulphus, Kam’s mother, told NewsOne that her son refused to get into the pool at his first lesson. “I had to bribe him with McDonalds,” she recalled, with a full laugh. Pulphus said that her mother has been a driving force behind ensuring Kam knows how to swim because she never had the opportunity to learn.
“It’s very common that parents bring their children here because they have fear of water but don’t want their kids to be afraid,” explained Davis, who at about 5-feet tall is a bundle of dynamite radiating positive energy.
Davis isn’t just a swimming instructor. She’s also an entrepreneur. When Davis launched her company, Swim swim swim I SAY in 2009, she started with only three clients and has grown steadily to well over 100.
Entrepreneurship was an unintended path for Davis, who has a career in the medical field as a cardiovascular perfusionist. During certain operations, such as open-heart surgery, cardiovascular perfusionists operate equipment that supports or replaces the patient’s circulation and lung functions.
Davis said several years ago, she was working at a top New York City hospital when she was wrongfully terminated. “I was devastated, lost, clueless, crying my eyes out, depressed,” she said, recalling those dark days of joblessness at the beginning of the recession.
But Davis is not one to stay down for long. “The universe gives you ideas you never thought of to move forward when you’re in a difficult place,” she said.
Her watershed moment came while watching NBC’s “Today” show. Donny Deutch, the advertising and public relations expert, made a surprising statement at a time when growing numbers of Americans found themselves out of work.
Davis recalled him saying, ‘believe it or not, this is the best time to start a business.’ He recommended creating a niche doing something you love.
As a lifelong swimmer, Davis decided to take the plunge and start a swimming company.
Growing up on Long Island, she was no stranger to swimming pools, where she was usually the only Black child in the water. With a mother who was an avid swimmer and a lifeguard sister, she learned to swim early. They decide to teach her because, as a fearless child, Davis would jump into the deep end of the pool.
Inspired by Deutch, Davis was determined to build a successful company. She started with a Google search but could not find another female Black-owned swimming company. Davis also discovered the shocking drowning rate of African-Americans and pledge to personally make a difference.
Beyond teaching swim strokes, Davis is changing lives through her water aerobics classes and work with autistic kids. “I’ve helped students who were unhealthy or feared water and turn their life around,” she said. “You can’t beat that.”
Her niche is ‘the fear-of-water expert.’ Davis said there was no textbook on teaching new swimmers how to overcome their fear of water. “What a lot of instructors don’t realize is the fear is real,” she explained. “You have to start out with their comfort level, where they are, gain their trust. A lot of instructors don’t build trust.”
Davis uses the teaching skills she developed quite often with many of the students who come to her. Most African-Americans, especially in poor urban communities, have no access to pools. It’s no wonder that nearly 70 percent of Black children have little or no swimming ability, according to a study commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation and conducted by the University of Memphis.
The cycle continues generation-after-generation. As the researchers found, if parents don’t know how to swim, there’s little chance that their children will learn.
Davis is optimistic. She sees an uptick of interest among African-Americans in learning how to swim, especially after Simone Manuel became the first African-American female to win an individual swimming gold medal.
“They say, ‘wow, Black people swim.’ Little Black boys and girls now have role models,” she said, thrilled.