Rickey Perkins' love of swimming has taken him all over the world. From growing up in Midland, Texas, to swimming collegiately in Alaska and coaching in the Bahamas, love and hard work are what guides him.
That mentality took Perkins to Bowling Green State University, where he is currently the head swimming and diving coach. When asked why he loves swimming so much, the answer is almost always the same.
“It can save your life. That’s something that is so special about the sport and that’s why I love it,” he said.
In a cruel twist of irony, the element that Perkins loves so much is the one that took away someone he cares about. When Perkins was just two years old, his biological father, Calvin Perkins, drowned in a boating accident.
“He was out fishing a boat bigger than his got too close. It wasn’t that he couldn’t swim, he was a good swimmer,” Perkins’s mother Christine Walker said of the accident.
“He was just in the water and something pulled him under,” she said.
According to the CDC, between 1999-2010, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher than that of whites across all ages. The disparity is most pronounced in swimming pools. African American children aged 5-19 drown in swimming pools at rates more than five times higher than those of whites.
Those statistics are not lost on Perkins.
“I think right now, the drowning rate of African Americans is very high. I think number one because access to pools is limited but when there is access to it, if we don’t know how to learn or to control how to swim bad things can happen. That’s why I love the sport so much because it can save your life,” Perkins said.
Perkins' life was further shaped by a grandmother he visited often as a child in Texas, whom he called “big momma Estelle.”
“In the summertime we would be dropped off there and she had us and we would have to go out into this big lot and just hoe ground. We were just hoeing the ground, just chucking up dirt. We had to do that before we could eat,” Perkins said.
“It’s funny because usually with your grandparents they are supposed to take care of you but we had to buy like kool-aid, buy different kinds of candy she had. We had to buy everything, nothing she had was free and that was part of who she was,” he continued. “The reason why we did that was to teach us that life is hard and you’ve got to work for everything you get.”
But Estelle didn’t just do this for her grandkids because it was true, she did it because it was necessary for raising Black children in America.
“She was a strong woman that taught us a lot about having to work hard a lot about the fact that we were Black and that sometimes we were going to have to work twice as hard to get just as far. She wasn’t shy about those kinds of things at all,” Perkins said. “That is what I learned from her, that you will be recognized for your color first and you’ve got to make sure that your skill and character outweigh your color.”
It wasn’t until 11 years after Perkins’ father drowned that he would get in the water and learn to swim himself.
“It took my momma a while for her to let us learn how to swim. I think we were at a lake and I had a life jacket on and a rope tied to the dock and my mom was like you are going to do this,” he said. “I think the life jacket actually had a hole in it.”
Hole or not, it made no difference to Perkins. The kid from Midland, Texas never needed a life jacket after that day. Perkins surmounted the obstacle of learning how to swim. But when Perkins began swimming for his high school team, he faced a new obstacle: race.
“I saw it the first day I walked on deck,” Perkins said.
“I was the only skinny Black kid in a speedo. Then you hear all of those jokes that Black people can’t swim, they’re going to drown, their bones are too thick. Basically right from the start but I think the sport of swimming even though it’s not as diverse I think the people that are in it are good people, you know they are very open-minded people.”
The jokes didn’t bother Perkins much at the time, but it still motivated Perkins to prove people wrong.
“Of course it did. I think you spend most of your life trying to prove people wrong. And trying to prove that yes I can swim, I can do these things. So yeah it motivated me. It motivated me,” Perkins said.
As big a motivation to become a swimmer as that might be, Christine and Rickey’s step-father Will Walker, thought that there was more to his success as a swimmer.
“He was just so dedicated, and he loved to swim,” Walker said. “He always worked hard at everything that he did, whether that be his swimming or his grades.”
Perkins eventually did prove people wrong. Not only did he attend college on a swimming scholarship, but he began his coaching career in 1994 and didn’t look back.
That career continues to this day at BGSU where Perkins teaches athletes about swimming and life. He credits many of his teachings to mentor Rick Powers. Powers is another accomplished swimming coach who’s worked in Puerto Rico, Dubai, Israel, Africa and Europe.
“The main thing that he taught me was the plan. Before I met him I used to kind of wake up and go to the deck and I had a workout in mind and I would try to make it up as I went and he was like ‘you can’t do that if you are going to be successful. You need to sit down and plan out the week, plan out the month and make sure you know the direction you are going,’” Perkins said.
Planning wasn’t the only thing Perkins learned from Powers. His mentor’s love of travel transferred over as well.
“He kind of put that bug in me as well. We’ve been to five other continents so far. We love seeing different parts of the world, that’s something that I love. Growing up knowing that the world is so big but at the same time so small,” Perkins said.
No matter where in the world Perkins travels, his love of swimming comes with him. It’s a love harkening back to a 13-year old kid tied to a dock, breaking free and swimming for the first time.