The Harlem Honeys and Bears senior swim team prove why swimming is the best form of therapy.
- Posted on Apr 10, 2019
Visit the swimming pool located in the Hansborough Recreation Center in Harlem on a weekday afternoon and you’ll be treated to an unusual sight—even by New York City standards.
The pool, normally filled with kids learning to stay afloat in the shallow end or adults getting in some laps after work, transforms into an aquatic haven for some of the city’s senior residents. Home to “The Harlem Honeys and Bears,” the senior synchronized swimming team.
Made up of members that range in age from 60 to 95 years-old, the team is a mainstay in the community, holding regular practices since 1979. There are, on average, over two dozen members of the team at any one time, and most if not all, are African American.
Although the team has gained media fame in the past few years, appearing on the TODAY Show (where they taught host Hoda Kotb some water aerobics) and with profiles in publications like The Atlantic and National Geographic, going viral was never what drew these swimmers to the water.
“A lot of us came here sick and this was given to us as therapy,” Monica Hale, the team’s captain, tells NBC News. “It’s been the best thing that’s ever happened.”
The team meets three days a week to practice routines for the city and state competitions they take part in each year. Their coach of 23 years, Oliver Footé, crafts choreography that each member can participate in, no matter their level of ability.
In fact, because many on the team suffer from a variety of ailments, the center has made a point of catering to its senior-most team, installing lifts for those who can’t use the stairs to enter the pool.
For 96-year-old Lettice Graham, the oldest swimmer on the team, the ability to dip into the water and stretch her muscles has, in many ways, saved her life. Graham didn’t begin swimming until age 64, but you wouldn’t know it watching her perform intricate dances and human pyramids in the deep end.
“Without swimming, I’d be in the doctor’s office,” Graham says. “It’s the best therapy.”
The team says that Foote’s robust aerobic workout strengthens their cardiovascular muscles, relieves tension and stress, and allows them to exercise without straining their limbs and joints.
But the team isn’t just focused on improving themselves, they’re also intent on giving back to the community.
Each week, members of the team serve as coaches and mentors during swim practice for younger students, helping kids in the community -- a majority of which are black youth -- work on their strokes, learn to tread water, and overcome their fear of the pool.
According to a recent University of Memphis study, 70% of African Americans have little to no swimming ability and black children are five times more likely to die from drowning than white children. The Harlem Honeys and Bears are hoping to reverse that trend.
They hope to break harmful stereotypes associated with their ethnicity, and to entice their peers to get into the pool because, no matter your age, the water is just fine.