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Jamal Hill was standing on the podium at the 2018 U.S. Para Swimming Championships, and all he could think about was climbing off the podium.
“I had the medal around my neck, and I realized the true value wasn’t the shiny trophy,” Hill said. “I was asking myself, what’s more powerful: Jamal Hill standing with medals by himself, or Jamal Hill standing in unity with other people?
The moment stands out in Hill’s memory as the day his perspective changed on his career. “The true value of a champion is inspiring and empowering those around you. I knew that if I continued to swim, I would grow a platform with the potential to not only change the world, but really improve the world.”
For some, the notion of swimming as a transformative experience seems like a bit of a stretch. But to hear Hill’s story makes it entirely plausible. Hill has been a swimmer since before he could walk. At ten months old, baby Hill joined his mother at “Mommy and Me” swimming classes, where he seemed to enjoy the water. That led to swimming lessons, which led to joining a swim team at age six. Hill loved every second he spent in the pool, and was devastated to have it come to an end when he experienced a temporary case of paralysis at age 10. Hill was diagnosed with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disorder; the condition, which damages the nerves in the feet, legs, hands and arms, can cause weakness in the limbs, difficulty lifting the feet or legs, intense numbness and tingling, and loss of muscle around the hands and feet—all things that would make it hard to continue swimming.
But Hill loved being in the water. Even after he left the swim team, he wanted to get to a pool as much as possible. After a six-year hiatus, he couldn’t take it anymore. Hill resumed swimming competitively as a sophomore in high school. By his junior year in college, he realized he wanted to pursue it at the top level. He moved to California to train with the post-grad elite team based out of the University of Southern California, and then found even more success with his own coach, Wilma Wong, who helped navigate him to a bronze medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2020 Paralympic Games. Swimming changed his life. He wanted to share that with others—many others. After learning that a quarter of a million people globally drown each year, he knew what he wanted to do:
“I set the goal of teaching 1 million people how to swim,” Hill said. By partnering with organizations like the Boys and Girls Club of America and sponsors like Decathlon Sports, the Swim Up Hill Foundation has set out to provide free swim lessons around the globe and address the most common barriers to swimming.
“The number one thing keeping people from learning how to swim is generational trauma, whether that person had a near drowning experience himself or knows of someone who either had a near-drowning or actually did drown,” Hill said. “That’s an extremely traumatic experience and hard to overcome.”
Overcoming this barrier is often compounded by a lack of resources. “Here in the United States, black kids are the most susceptible to drowning than any other demographic. Around the world it’s low-income communities and families that are suffering the most,” Hill said. “When a parent is struggling to meet basic needs, they don’t have the time to send their kids to swim lessons for three months or chauffeur their kids all over town.” This is particularly true in areas where swimming pools are not in abundance, which is true for many low-income areas.
Finances, too, come into play. The average swim lesson costs between $20 and $100 per hour—an expense that many families can’t afford. “It then becomes easier just to say ‘stay away from the water’ than to literally go financially underwater trying to teach that kid to learn how to swim,” Hill said.
“There isn’t a good enough system,” he said. His organization was designed to address and remove those barriers to let people access free, developmentally-appropriate swim lessons that can be implemented in areas where three months of swimming lessons aren’t an option.
“There’s this urban legend that learning to swim is time-consuming, scary, and hard,” Hill said. “What we’ve done at the Swim Up Hill Foundation illuminates the reality: that learning to swim is not only fun, it’s easy.”
Currently, Swim Up Hill has taught thousands of children and adults to swim using lessons that address what Hill calls “aqua-phobia” by using trauma healing techniques adapted from techniques used for individuals suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The program also includes a home-based learn-to-swim curriculum that does not require a pool in order to build basic swimming skills. The program’s unique “Bowl Bench Bucket” approach uses common household items to teach basic swim skills such as proper breathing techniques and swim strokes. The organization also offers in-person and virtual events for instruction, where students can put these skills to practice.
Since its inception in 2018, the program has grown exponentially. In 2021, the Swim Up Hill curriculum was delivered to more than 120,000 students in grades 5-12 at schools in low- and middle-income communities in the Los Angeles area. Hill is driven to hit his expanded goal of creating one million new swimmers per year by the year 2028. In addition to his own training, he often spends his free time in the water, working with new swimmers of all ages—a pursuit he finds immensely rewarding.
“Even though it would be understandable to just focus on my own swimming pursuits, swimming was really only ever a means to an end,” Hill said. “I wanted more than to change records in history books. I wanted to create something that might rewrite history.”