Rolling Out

Black Paralympian Jamal Hill is teaching thousands of people how to swim

Hill’s movement comes years after hiding his disability
Black Paralympian Jamal Hill is teaching thousands of people how to swim
Jamal Hill with a group of students. (Photo courtesy of Swim UpHill)

Jamal Hill is one of two Black American Paralympian swimmers to medal in the history of the Paralympics. His journey to becoming a Paralympian is unique, but also his current mission with Swim UpHill.

He founded the organization to help teach thousands of people to swim a year through lessons and books. Recently, Hill stopped by rolling out to discuss it all.

How did you become a Paralympian?

I started swimming at 10 months old at Mommy and Me swim classes at the local Westchester YMCA here in Los Angeles. My mom didn’t really know how to swim during that time, but she was a great athlete … you could call it the first organized activity or sport I participated in. It went from Mommy and Me swim lessons to individual swim lessons, group classes, and then when I’m about 6 or 7 years old, I look across the pool and I see the big kids diving and doing the butterfly and all of that … so I was like, “Man. I need to be over there with them.”

Like most kids, I was rambunctious, not listening in class and doing my own thing. My mom was like, “Until you learn how to not have me hear your name called 1,000 times, no swim team.” So, like any sensible kid, I got my act together because I wanted something. I ended up on the swim team, had a great time, and won a lot of medals.

At 10 years old, I had to stop swimming because of health complications. I was diagnosed with neuropathy, a neurological disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth. It put me in a paralyzed state. Once I came out of that paralyzed state, I was left with this new body. So now I have 0% nerve capacity from my knees to the soles of my feet and about 30% nerve capacity from my elbows to my fingertips. So it literally feels like I’m walking on my knees. Almost as if I was a performer on stilts. So if someone kicks me, I feel it, but my ability to grow muscle, wiggle my toes, jump high, and run fast are limit[ed] … I picked swimming back up at 16 and swam through high school. I went to a Divison III college, and during my junior year, I came out of this disability closet to my coach after 12 years. In 2018, I joined the Paralympic movement and in 2019, I won my first international medal.

What is Swim UpHill?

I think to be a true champion, you have to champion a cause. You have to champion a movement. Being a champion of yourself is very shallow. That said, I like winning, and I like racing, but I felt my purpose was bigger than that … in 2018, I started the Swim UpHill Foundation, and our mission at the time was to teach a million people how to swim. Since that time we’ve grown, and now our mission is to teach one million people how to swim every year by 2028. We’ve run programs internationally, we have partnerships with YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs.

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