By Jannelle Walker
Special to The New Tri-State Defender
Last week, 68-year-old Loretta Griffin became the first African-American Memphian to compete in the National Senior Olympics for swimming, coming full circle from her days of doing water aerobics at the Davis YMCA in Whitehaven.
The New Tri-State Defender talked to Griffin before she left for Albuquerque, N.M., where the swimming competitions were being held. Griffin, a retired teacher, began swimming five years ago. She had been taking water aerobics classes at the YMCA for about three years and when she became comfortable with the water, she decided it was time to learn how to swim. “I would always see other swimmers doing laps. They looked like they were really enjoying themselves. That made me want to learn how to swim,” she said.
That’s when she started swimming lessons and learning the basics that she practiced every day. One day Griffin was at home watching television and a feature for men in their 90s participating in the National Senior Olympics appeared, but it wasn’t until “the next day I saw a news item about local games and they were about to start. It was time to register, so I went on and signed up for those.”
Once she became a contestant for the local games, Griffin was told that she would need to participate in the state level and place in the top four to attend the Nationals, as well as qualify the year before the actual Olympics. Griffin completed all her requirements, including coming in third place last year in a 500 freestyle that consisted of 20 laps and four strokes to qualify her for the Nationals.
In college, Griffin took swimming lessons to complete her degree. “So, I did take it, but the lady felt sorry for me and gave me a C because you had to make a C in order not to take it again. I was terrible at it.” Many times, Griffin was the only African American participating in the swimming competitions leading up the Olympics. She encourages more African-American children to swim, specifically girls because she feels “everybody should know how to swim.”
Her strategy for being proficient is to focus on the game and doing the best to her ability.
“I want to get there and do my technique. Get my technique correct, then my strategy is: Do the best I can do. If that results in a win, that is even better,” Griffin said. “That is like icing on the cake.”
Griffin trained at the Bickford Aquatic Center for the National Senior Olympics at least three to four times each week. She would start with 10 minutes of warm-ups, then 20 laps and then begin on her backstrokes.Her coach was Cynthia Dickerson, whom she met as a coordinator for the local games.“She was the one who suggested if I was interested in going into the state or to the Nationals, I needed to get with her,” said Griffin, “and that made a world of a difference…
“She is the bravest person I know. I can mess up really bad and she will find something good in it. When I’m swimming, I’m thinking about her, I’d think about her words.”
Dickerson, 65, has been a swimming coach for 20 years, coaching both adults and children. A former coach at Central High School, Dickerson said her own son inspired her to be a coach.
What makes a good swimmer? According to Dickerson, it is both attitude and technique.
“Somebody that can do all four strokes, butterfly, backstroke and breaststroke. Somebody who can do the continuous laps. Somebody who is consistently trying to improve.”
Dickerson sums up Griffin with one word: Persistent.“(She) does whatever I tell her to do, to correct her structure, to improve her stroke, and she is right there doing it to the best of her ability. I just think she is a winner. You don’t find that in many people.”