Howard swim team, in historic meet, elevates Black profile in the sport

Among the first indications something special was happening at Howard were DC police vehicles, lights flashing, blocking a handful of side streets along a stretch of Georgia Avenue in Northwest where the university’s athletic facilities are located.

Inside Burr Gymnasium, henceforth, thumping beats reverberated over the sound system as students, parents, alumni and Bison supporters milled about in the corridors while other patrons patiently but eagerly waited in line to have their tickets scanned.

The draw on a soggy and overcast afternoon was a swim meet against crosstown rival Georgetown billed as the Battle at the Burr, where an announced crowd of 2,000-plus packed the seating area above the pool for the sold-out event organizers indicated was the most attended aquatics competition in school history.

Overflow viewing for the late-arriving set was available through windows lining the hallway on the main concourse and in front of a VIP section dubbed the Splash Lounge that welcomed special guests to the dual-meet season opener conducted in conjunction with Howard’s Hall of Fame weekend .

One of the inductees was Nicholas Askew, the coach of the Bison men’s and women’s swim and dive teams. Not only did Askew hold a number of records at the time of his graduation in 2000, but he also has overseen exponential growth by the only swim and dive program at a historically Black college or university.

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“That is really honest to goodness the mission,” said Askew, who over eight seasons has embraced elevating the profile of Black and Brown swimmers and divers in a sport in which traditionally they have been underrepresented. “We don’t just take it as, ‘Okay, we’re a Division I program, and we swim, and we dive, and we go home.’

“We have what I believe is a bigger obligation to the community. When you think about only 2 percent of USA Swimming and only 2 percent of NCAA swimming and diving is African American, that percentage to me, I want to be able to raise that percentage because I think swimming is a global sport.”

Askew was enshrined during a ceremony Friday night and honored again Saturday after the first event of the Battle at the Burr, the women’s one-meter dive. Howard won the men’s overall title, 115-109, and lost on the women’s side, 148-76.

Since Askew took over, Howard has broken more than 80 school records in both men’s and women’s events. Last season the men were runners-up at the Northeast Conference championships in Geneva, Ohio, amassing 638.5 points and setting 17 school and three meet records.

Askew and his assistants were named NEC coaching staff of the year during the awards ceremony where the 400-freestyle relay team celebrated a school-record time of 2:59.46. Miles Simon swam the first leg of the relay in 44.66, the third-fastest time in school history.

Simon also was the featured attraction Saturday at the facility where his name appears on half of the 22 events listed on a plastic board hanging on the poolside wall recognizing Bison record holders. His lengthy list of accomplishments includes the school-record time in the 50 free and one of the fastest times in the country (19.72), set last season along with all his other marks.

“This is my first time being at a meet like this,” Simon said of the energy at Burr. “This is like a great experience. Our dual meets usually are always hype, but this is probably times 10, which is crazy. Being a part of it, just being on the block and knowing there’s a crowd that looks like me, that really supported me and helped me through my races.”

Last year Simon became the second swimmer in program history to qualify for the US Olympic trials. Despite specializing in the 200 individual medley, in which he holds the Bison record (1:49.55), Simon qualified in the 50 free in part thanks to a pivot related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Simon remained at his home in Atlanta during the height of the pandemic when students were exclusively learning remotely. There he did not have the aquatic resources offered at Howard, so he focused his attention on the 50 because the stroke, according to Simon, is less labor intensive to correct.

Back at Howard, the most raucous cheering Saturday unfolded during the 24th and final event of the meet, the men’s 200-free relay. With Simon swimming the lead leg, the Bison opened a commanding margin on the way to winning in 1:22.77, compelling the entire team, men and women, to dance in unison as fans joined in.

So, too, did the Hoyas, who waved across the pool to their opponent before members of both teams shook hands at the meet’s conclusion.

“This is a predominantly White sport, so us swimming and competing and doing our best and showing younger Black kids that there’s another sport to do; you don’t have to play basketball, you don’t have to play football,” Simon said. “Younger Black swimmers seeing swimmers like us will give them reassurance that they can do what we can do.”