SPORTS & ENT / PARALYMPIAN / SWIMMING

Embracing Challenges and Making Waves: An Inspiring Interview with Jamal Hill

July 10, 2023

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Jamal Hill has been nominated for the prestigious Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award at the 2023 ESPY Awards! Jamal has captured the hearts of many with his extraordinary journey and unwavering commitment to overcoming adversity. In this in-depth conversation, we delve into his inspiring story, his dedication to making a positive impact through his foundation, and his invaluable advice on facing challenges head-on. Join us as we explore the remarkable accomplishments of Jamal Hill and the profound wisdom he shares with us along the way.

How did you find out about your ESPY nomination?

I found out via email. So the announcement came out two weeks ago but I found out about the nomination, I don't know, maybe three or four weeks ago. I got an email and they're asking me for photos and a bio. I was beyond excited.

Not to start off heavy but your performance coach in college, Wilma Wong talked about how you had opened up to her about your diagnosis with CMT (Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease) after keeping it a secret for so long. What was it that finally made you open up in college about your CMT and how did you open yourself to the idea of pursuing the Paralympics?

What made me open up about it, was really, just Wilma calling me out on it. That hadn’t happened before. She said “I've been watching for a year now and the way you do this, the way you do this, it reminds me of some patients that I worked with in the past, who have cerebral palsy, or some type of neuropathy, is there's something that you're not telling me?” And so, that's really, what led me, I think to open up to Wilma. Obviously, a decade of kind of living in the proverbial shadows and the proverbial closet of disability. Especially not a  disability that, is, limitation impaired like vision or hearing loss. To the untrained eye, arguably I looked in above average condition. 
But when Wilma first brought up the idea of the Paralympics to me, I was initially turned off. It was a route that I wasn’t interested in and she respected that and didn’t push it.

Were you turned off because of society’s misconceptions about the Paralympics and people with disabilities in general?

It wasn't just a misunderstanding about the Paralympics; it went deeper than that. Society's expectations and the fear of vulnerability played a significant role. Nobody wants to be seen as having something wrong with them, and that was the bigger issue. I didn't want anyone to look down on me or perceive me as less capable because of my disability. I also didn't want people who knew me to think I had been lying all along. These were the main concerns I had.
The Paralympic movement itself represented a platform that would expose my personal secret to the public eye.

As a professional athlete, there is a certain level of responsibility and an expectation to be a role model. However, I believe that when you are successful and have chosen a path that represents an underrepresented group, the responsibility as a role model becomes even greater. How does this make you feel? Does it come with a significant amount of pressure? And if so, how do you manage and cope with that pressure?

I don't feel any pressure; in fact, I see it as a great honor. To be honest, I believe that young individuals like myself are quite rare these days, and that's truly unfortunate. I think this scarcity has a negative impact on our society and our youth. Many athletes today struggle with mental illness and depression because they are confined to a singular role and identity. They believe they are only valued for their athletic prowess and that they have no other purpose beyond that. This narrow perspective limits their growth and self-expression.
I believe that our youth need role models who exhibit excellence not only in their respective sports or areas of expertise, such as swimming in my case, but also in upholding values and leading a well-rounded life. For instance, in my own life, I prioritize healthy habits like not smoking, staying hydrated, regular exercise, and consistent reading. I also devote time to personal growth and education, particularly in the field of business. I don't want to go on for too long, but I strongly believe that these qualities are crucial, and if individuals were educated and able to apply that knowledge to their lives, it would greatly benefit both them and society as a whole.
Perhaps some people are unaware of this, and that's the challenge. However, if they were properly informed and had the opportunity to apply that education, it would lead to positive outcomes for everyone involved.

Why do you feel people of color and those in low-income communities, don't have an affinity towards swimming? Is it cultural? Or something else?

Absolutely, that's a fantastic and inspiring question. First and foremost, I would like to highlight the significance of cultural and historical connections to water for many diverse cultures around the world. Whether it's African, Latino, Asian, or indigenous cultures, there exists a deep-rooted relationship and affinity with water. Throughout history, these cultures have thrived in aquatic environments, engaging in activities such as swimming, pearl diving, and water-based adventures.
However, as we examine more recent history, particularly in regions influenced by global imperialism and the transatlantic slave trade, we witness a shift in the narrative. Many waterways, even in places like the United States and its territories, were originally navigated and utilized by indigenous peoples and individuals of African and other marginalized backgrounds who possessed knowledge of hydraulics, irrigation, and boat-building.
With the exponential growth of human advancement since the Industrial Revolution, we observe the emergence of systemic issues such as racism, classism, and economic disparities. These factors contribute to the unequal distribution of resources and opportunities, impacting access to swimming and aquatic activities. In the United States and the United Kingdom, for example, swimming transformed from a point of communal engagement to a differentiating factor, tied to socioeconomic factors and restricted by policies such as redlining.
The proliferation of resort-style pools throughout the US, often concentrated in certain areas, reflects the intentional exclusion of communities of color from recreational spaces and opportunities. This systematic marginalization was rooted in maintaining neighborhood segregation and perpetuating economic disparities. These historical and social factors have led to limited access to swimming for people of color, hindering their ability to participate fully in society.
While I may be providing you with a lot of information, this topic is of great importance to me, and I could delve into it further. Across different cultures, swimming holds significant cultural value, especially for people of color. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that recent history has witnessed a transformative narrative, characterized by systemic barriers, political decisions like redlining, and economic limitations. The effects of these factors have had long-lasting consequences, preventing individuals from fully engaging in aquatic recreation and recognizing the inherent importance of swimming as a necessary life skill.
I hope this sheds some light on the complex cultural and historical aspects related to swimming and its connection to diverse communities.

With the extensive knowledge you have of historical connotations within the water and its cultural significance, did that inspire you to start your Swim Up Hill foundation?

No, the research actually came after the fact. Winning accolades and achieving financial success alone won't have a lasting impact. Recognizing the importance of representation, I've contemplated how to align my passion, experience, and reputation with a meaningful mission and purpose. In my exploration, I discovered that approximately one million people around the world drown each year, with many cases going unreported, particularly in impoverished nations. There seems to be a cycle of trauma, as many individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds lack access to water and proper swimming skills, yet find themselves in dangerous situations near water.
Realizing this, I felt a strong desire to leverage my platform and swimming aspirations to make a difference. It became clear that the existing efforts of various organizations were not producing substantial change. It didn't seem like a complex problem to solve, as every individual is born with a period of vulnerability before they can even walk on land, considering that our planet is 71% water. This inspired me to develop a curriculum, which we refined over two years, aimed at teaching swimming quickly and effectively. 
Through extensive research and development, we created a five-hour curriculum that addressed the needs of individuals with varying degrees of water-related trauma or fear. The curriculum focuses on building foundational skills, such as breathing techniques and stroke mechanics, initially taught on land before transitioning to the pool. We realized that our approach could serve a broader population, particularly those lacking access to water, professional coaching, or financial resources.
The foundation was established based on this curriculum, and my ongoing studies, including language classes, are driven by the desire to connect with communities more effectively. By learning the language spoken in the regions where our programs are implemented, I aim to provide better educational support. This includes countries that were colonized and predominantly speak English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and potentially Mandarin in the future, although the latter presents additional challenges due to its distinct alphabet.
Ultimately, these efforts are fueled by a sense of connection and a deep desire to serve the community. The intention behind the foundation is to eradicate drowning and accomplish our mission, which goes beyond mere ideology. We are determined to solve a pressing problem and make a tangible impact.

The fact that you possess great mental strength is truly significant. It raises the question of what lies behind this strength, as many individuals struggle to overcome challenges in their lives. Was it something innate within you or was it nurtured? How did you develop such exceptional mental resilience?

Certainly, it was primarily nurtured in my case. I consider myself fortunate to have had amazing parents who instilled a lot of confidence and discipline in me. Growing up, I was in a space where as a child, it was my responsibility to listen, learn, and seek positive influences from my elders. This laid a solid foundation for me. Additionally, throughout my life, I actively sought out challenges and pushed myself out of my comfort zone. The more I engaged with difficult tasks, the more I desired to tackle even greater challenges. I believe this drive stems from within.
Of course, not everyone will have the same circumstances. Many people may not have both parents in their homes, especially across different demographics. I acknowledge that I had older parents who brought a wealth of experience. Despite being an only child, there were various factors that made my upbringing somewhat unique. However, I want to emphasize that a strong foundation alone does not guarantee success. Ultimately, I had to want it for myself. When I made the decision to drop out of college and pursue a career as a professional swimmer, I had to take initiative. I delved into reading extensively, consuming knowledge on negotiation, business, marketing, social media, and aspects related to my personal growth and identity. It was a self-driven effort.
Along the way, I didn't face many people explicitly telling me what I couldn't do. However, there were instances where people expressed doubt or dismissed my aspirations with skeptical comments. I believe everyone should embrace such energy and thrive on it. It's not about convincing others of your dreams; it's about selling yourself on your dreams and taking action. Once you set your dreams in motion, they become incredibly magnetic, attracting the resources and opportunities needed to continue on that path. If it's truly the right calling, it will manifest. Otherwise, it's important to adapt and explore other avenues.
When I dropped out of school and pursued a career as a professional athlete, I knew there was a time limit, particularly as I approached the age of 50. Statistically speaking, the older I get, the less viable that career path becomes. However, I couldn't ignore the fear of living with regret if I didn't try. I can only recall one moment in my life when I regretted not seizing an opportunity, and that reminder drives me every time I face a new challenge or opportunity. I embrace it because I believe I have earned it.
In summary, the key factor for me is evaluating whether I will live with regret if I don't pursue a particular path. If the answer is yes, then it's a simple decision—I will take the leap and embrace the challenge.

What advice would you give to someone who is facing some sort of adversity? But they don't have that support system that you had with your parents, they don’t have friends, they don’t have mentors. What advice would you give?

Finding role models is crucial to personal growth. While I had a strong foundation, many essential skills didn't develop until I reached adulthood. It's not about relying on one specific person, like a religious figure or icon. Instead, I draw inspiration from a collection of role models who possess qualities I admire. These individuals contribute to my North Star, which represents the amalgamation of their abilities and traits.
Designing one's life and taking ownership is vital. Regardless of the passage of time, we can choose to have a clear vision and work towards it. Even if we don't achieve it exactly as planned, we'll be closer than ever before. Speaking from my experience as a man, I believe young men benefit from having an agenda or plan. It keeps them focused, away from mindless entertainment, drugs, alcohol, and harmful behaviors. Such a plan not only impacts their own lives but also the well-being of those they care about and society as a whole.
Creating a collage of favorite characteristics and traits from various people and naming it becomes a way to shape our future selves. By studying and working towards that vision, we can transform our lives significantly over time.
Mental health struggles often stem from the pursuit of perfection. Recognizing that no one person can fulfill all our needs and that it takes a community to raise and develop a person is essential. There is no pressure to be perfect; instead, it's about aligning our actions with our values. For example, I don't smoke or drink because it goes against my personal principles. This decision may not be universal, but it resonates with me.
It's important to remember that winning accolades or achievements alone don't define our worth. We shouldn't base our value on external validation or fear judgment when we fall short. We are all human and bound to make mistakes. Embracing our imperfections and appreciating one another's journeys leads to a more enjoyable human experience. Striving for excellence, even in our redemption and retribution, adds depth to our actions and interactions.

To cap this off on a lighter and exciting note, with the ESPYs coming up. If you win, who is the first person you are going to thank?

During my college dropout phase, I found myself lying in bed at my parents' house, staring at the ceiling. At that moment, I gathered magazines and cut out images of the best athletes in the world, like Michael Phelps. I envisioned myself among them, competing at that elite level. It was during those times that I turned to God and prayed for the realization of my dreams, asking for the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of my sport. I made a promise to God that if given the platform, I would utilize it to make a positive impact. While I primarily identify as a Christian, I believe that the values and principles shared among different religious beliefs are more important than specific religious labels.
If you were to visit my Instagram, you would come across a post that stands out—the photo from Tokyo where I held my hands in a specific way. Since personal items weren't allowed during the games, I later had my friend use Photoshop to add a sign to my hands that says God’s Glory. It symbolized the glory and achievement I aspired to. This act represents the faith and belief that intertwine with my efforts and hard work. While I show up and give my best, there's a deeper aspect beyond my control that stitches everything together—the inhales and exhales of life. This is why I give a shoutout to God for playing a significant role in my journey.
Next, I express gratitude to my parents, who have been instrumental in my life. They have provided unwavering support and guidance. While I didn't mention myself and my parents in a specific order, they hold a special place in my heart. Following that, there is a long list of family and friends who have contributed to my growth and success. Their support and presence have been invaluable to me.
So, my gratitude extends to God, my parents, and then the wider network of family and friends who have played important roles in my life.

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