The Harlem Honeys and Bears

want everyone to get in the pool.

For ESPN’s The Undefeated

 

On a Monday afternoon in Harlem, New York, Luther Gales emerges from a locker room beside the swimming pool at the Hansborough Recreation Center dressed in black swim trunks. A member of the Harlem Honeys and Bears synchronized swim team, Gales, 77, stands at the edge of the pool, stretches his red swim cap over his head and jumps into the deep end to swim some warm-up laps.

The all-black senior synchronized swim team has been around since 1979. Today, the 24 active members range in age from 58 to 95 and compete in city and state competitions every year. The team meets three days a week to practice its routines, including its signature pyramid performed to “Chariots of Fire” by Vangelis Papathanassiou.

No matter their age, disability or challenge, coach and choreographer Oliver Footé makes sure there is a formation each member can participate in. The recreation center has a pool lift for those who cannot use the stairs. Some members say they feel the freest in the water, no longer needing their wheelchair, cane or walkers. Footé will create different segments for members with disabilities, showcasing their strengths. Swimming helps build muscular and cardiovascular strength and is a great exercise for seniors because it presents little risk of injury, is low-impact and improves flexibility.

Gales, a retired housing police officer and a former Marine, is at the pool about five days a week. When not practicing with the Honeys and Bears, Gales, along with other members of the team, spends afternoons teaching young swimmers for free. Gales wants to break the stereotype that black people can’t swim and wants to integrate swimming into black recreational culture, he said.

According to research from the USA Swimming Foundation, 70 percent of African-Americans don’t know how to swim. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that black children drown at 5.5 times the rate of other children. Formal swim lessons can reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning significantly.

 
 Jean Miller and Luther Gales practice their deep end routine together on July 14, 2017, at the Hansborough Recreation Center in Harlem, New York.

Jean Miller and Luther Gales practice their deep end routine together on July 14, 2017, at the Hansborough Recreation Center in Harlem, New York.

 Rasheedah Ali (left) and Luther Gales prepare for the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice on June 26, 2017, in the Hansborough Recreation Center. Both Ali and Gales are longtime members of the all-black synchronized swim team that practices in Harlem, New York.

Rasheedah Ali (left) and Luther Gales prepare for the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice on June 26, 2017, in the Hansborough Recreation Center. Both Ali and Gales are longtime members of the all-black synchronized swim team that practices in Harlem, New York.

 Luther Gales puts his goggles on at the edge of the pool before the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice at the Hansborough Recreation Center. Gales recently competed in the national Senior Olympics and came home with three ribbons.

Luther Gales puts his goggles on at the edge of the pool before the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice at the Hansborough Recreation Center. Gales recently competed in the national Senior Olympics and came home with three ribbons.

 Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears warm up before practice. Some team members need extra assistance to get into the swimming pool, like Rasheedah Ali, who uses a pool lift to get into the water.

Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears warm up before practice. Some team members need extra assistance to get into the swimming pool, like Rasheedah Ali, who uses a pool lift to get into the water.

 Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice a formation.

Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice a formation.

 Luther Gales practices the backstroke during practice on July 14, 2017, at the Hansborough Recreation Center. The team practices three times a week for one hour.

Luther Gales practices the backstroke during practice on July 14, 2017, at the Hansborough Recreation Center. The team practices three times a week for one hour.

 Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice a formation on July 14, 2017.

Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears practice a formation on July 14, 2017.

 LeRoi Whethers and Luther Gales laugh at a joke after practice.

LeRoi Whethers and Luther Gales laugh at a joke after practice.

 Luther Gales and LeRoi Whethers walk up the stairs to head into Gales' Brookstone in Harlem, NY.

Luther Gales and LeRoi Whethers walk up the stairs to head into Gales' Brookstone in Harlem, NY.

 Luther Gales shows LeRoi Whethers his numerous trophies and awards at his townhouse. The awards range from the 1979-1987 police Olympics and include multiple sports such as cycling, triathlons, running and swimming.

Luther Gales shows LeRoi Whethers his numerous trophies and awards at his townhouse. The awards range from the 1979-1987 police Olympics and include multiple sports such as cycling, triathlons, running and swimming.

 Luther Gales descends the stairs of his home to head to youth swim practice on June 27, 2017. Gales was born and raised in Harlem. He started teaching youths to swim by teaching his own kids. “My children were the hardest ones to teach,” he recalled.

Luther Gales descends the stairs of his home to head to youth swim practice on June 27, 2017. Gales was born and raised in Harlem. He started teaching youths to swim by teaching his own kids. “My children were the hardest ones to teach,” he recalled.

 Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears reminisce together while at a farewell brunch for one of their members on June 28, 2017.

Members of the Harlem Honeys and Bears reminisce together while at a farewell brunch for one of their members on June 28, 2017.

 Luther Gales walks to the Hansborough Recreation Center to help reach youth swim practice. He has been teaching the youths for more than a decade. He said he believes “kids compete against themselves and the clock, so they have to be resilient. … The clock takes no prisoners.”

Luther Gales walks to the Hansborough Recreation Center to help reach youth swim practice. He has been teaching the youths for more than a decade. He said he believes “kids compete against themselves and the clock, so they have to be resilient. … The clock takes no prisoners.”

 Alandra Luna, 8, (left) and Justine Hill, 10, see who can hold their breath longer during their youth swim practice at the Hansborough Recreation Center on June 27, 2017. The youths practice one to two times a week for an hour, learning from members of the senior synchronized swim team, the Harlem Honeys and Bears.

Alandra Luna, 8, (left) and Justine Hill, 10, see who can hold their breath longer during their youth swim practice at the Hansborough Recreation Center on June 27, 2017. The youths practice one to two times a week for an hour, learning from members of the senior synchronized swim team, the Harlem Honeys and Bears.

 Luther Gales corrects a girl’s diving form during practice on June 27, 2017. Gales said, “When they leave me, they have all four skills and will have the tools to go to another team. They might not be the best swimmer, but they will have a concept of all four strokes.”

Luther Gales corrects a girl’s diving form during practice on June 27, 2017. Gales said, “When they leave me, they have all four skills and will have the tools to go to another team. They might not be the best swimmer, but they will have a concept of all four strokes.”

 Luther Gales looks out at his youth team practice at the Hansborough Recreation Center. Gales said, “Teaching the youth is rewarding, especially seeing a child with no skills become an accomplished swimmer — it’s great.”

Luther Gales looks out at his youth team practice at the Hansborough Recreation Center. Gales said, “Teaching the youth is rewarding, especially seeing a child with no skills become an accomplished swimmer — it’s great.”