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Celebrating Black History Month: Meet Debbie Armstead, Canada’s first black national team swimmer

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In honour of Black History Month, Swimming Canada is taking the time to celebrate the contributions and achievements of Black Canadian swimmers and coaches in our community.

Calgary native Debbie Armstead could be called the Jackie Robinson or Willie O’Ree of Canadian swimming. She was the first Black Canadian swimmer to qualify for the Olympic Games and was a member of the 1980 team that ultimately did not compete due to a boycott. Two years later, she realized her dream of competing for Canada on the world stage at the 1982 FINA World Championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Armstead (now known as Debbie Grant) went on to a 25-year coaching career in the sport.

The 1980-81 University of Calgary female athlete of the year and national university swimmer of the year switched from swimming to coaching at the club in 1983. She was later head coach of the Saskatoon Goldfins, before moving on to the Windsor Aquatic Club, where she coached for nine years before retiring in 2019.

Although she has taken a step back from the sport, Grant still lives in Windsor and keeps in touch with her former teammates and swimmers, some of whom she helped to national teams and scholarships.

“it’s a bond I don’t think we ever lose,” she says.

How did you get your start in swimming?

I got into swimming because my older brother Brian started first. I used to figure skate but I wanted to be with my brother. He was a national age group record holder in butterfly. I started when I was 10 and a half but I was not a good swimmer at first. I was horrible. But they kept me because of my brother. But once I caught on, I started moving through the swim club. By 11 I’d made provincials, then I made my first nationals at 12 and I kind of took off from 1974 summer nationals.

What are your memories of the 1980 Olympic team?

I had been on national teams at dual meets in Germany, Cuba, California, and Austin, Texas. That’s where I made my real breakthrough as far as finishing in the finals after I beat Wendy Quirk at nationals in ’78.

(The boycott) is still a sore spot. Politics always have to do something to interfere with people who have nothing to do with it. All the boycotted countries met in Hawaii and Japan that year and had a mini Olympics if you want to call it that.

It was fun because we were all going through the same thing, the disappointment of right to the very last hour we were told we were still going to go then being told that we’re not going.

The team was honoured at the Olympic and Paralympic Trials in 2012. What was it like to be honoured at the Olympic pool in Montreal?

That was amazing. It was an honour because they marched us out, we were there for the announcement of the team and they paid us tribute. They had a moment of silence because this is what our athletes went through in 1980 not going to the Olympics. It got quiet and sent chills through the whole place. It was amazing, and it was good to see like 95 per cent of our Olympic team was there so I thoroughly enjoyed that.

You got to compete for Canada on the world stage two years later at the FINA World Championships in Guayaquil, Ecuador. How was that experience?

That didn’t make up for (missing out on the Olympics) but it was a really good experience. To see Victor Davis break the world record and be part of that with other swimmers like Anne Ottenbrite, we had and still do have such great friendships with our national and Olympic teammates. We experienced the march in, the closing ceremonies and got to be part of that, it was amazing. In Ecuador it was outdoors and probably half the team had never seen soldiers with machine guns, but they were there when we were warming up. It was a different type of atmosphere but it was amazing.

Have you faced any frustration or barriers to pursuing the sport?

Not really. We knew it was there, especially when I travelled to the United States, we knew there was racism. But we weren’t mocked. My teammates were great, they said it was just me, just Debbie. But we were very few. Sometimes my cousins would come to the pool and everyone knew who they were there for. I would have like 30 people at a swim meet in Edmonton and people would know it was the Armstead family.

Now my son, he plays basketball and in Ontario, our team was a multicultural team. We had Chinese, black, white, Arabic, every race you can think of we had on this team. It was the first time I had ever seen it where the other team didn’t want to shake the kids’ hands because they were black. It’s just something I don’t tolerate. My parents raised me to do what you’re supposed to do, and if you do experience (racism), hit it right on the head.

In the pool, we were the only black ones, but we just blended in. I can’t say we ever ran into any kind of racism that we knew about it. My parents might have, but we didn’t have to experience it.

What does it mean to you to have been the first black swimmer on the national team?

I thought that I didn’t get enough acknowledgement in my own city or province. I think I was the first black swimmer at the University of Calgary, and I was the female athlete of the year. In Alberta I’m still not in the Sports Hall of Fame. I made the Olympic team, world championships, coached in Alberta as part of the team with Mark Tewksbury, Tom Ponting. What do I have to do? To me that’s just an insult.

(Being recognized by Swimming Canada) is amazing. I’m honoured and I was telling my mom about the interview. I’m very proud. I wear my Olympic ring and people go, “You’re black – are both your parents black?” “Yes they are.” I did get those questions. They’re more shocked. As the sport has grown, we see the results from more and more people. You’ve got (Jamaican breaststroker and multiple international medallist) Alia Atkinson. I met her in Windsor at worlds in 2016. My swimmers are going ‘You went right up to her!’ Well, she’s black so that avenue opens right up.

Do you have any mottos or favourite quotes?

I always used to put down “Go for 1t” with a “1,” and “No limits.” There’s no limits. One thing we used to hear is you won’t find a lot of black swimmers because they can’t float. I’d be like, “What?” We used to hear that myth. There’s no limits. I never let anybody tell me what I can’t do. Being black and growing up in swimming, whenever I saw someone of colour I was drawn to them because we didn’t have a lot of swimmers. Who your parents are have nothing to do with your accomplishments. My mom and dad didn’t swim, but my brother and I both did. Where does that come from? I don’t believe your dad has to be six foot for you to be a sprinter. Not necessarily. I don’t put limitations.

Another thing I used to say is, “Never let swimming be the excuse for school, or school be the excuse for swimming.” Get time management in both things. Sometimes on the drive to the pool you can study. There’s time for it.

I used to try to make sure all my swimmers knew the history. If your event is butterfly, or 1,500 free, you should know who the record holder is for your age group and for Canada. You have to know your history and know your Canadian history.

Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity