The Comeback Of The Greatest Native American Swimmer
The unbelievable lifestory of Wayne William Snellgrove will be broadcast by CNN.
His story, rooted in both the Sixties Scoop issue in Canada and his success as an open water swimmer, will be filmed before and during the Swim Miami event on April 16th. Snellgrove will swim the 1-mile race at the Swim Miami event, but the man known as the greatest Native American Swimmer, will tell his journey as a genocide survivor and his subsequent social activism campaigns for diversity and unity.
After being taken from his birth mother and finding his way to New Jersey, he began swimming for the famous Jersey Wahoo’s Swim Club in New Jersey. His talent for speed in the pool was quickly identified and developed until he became one of America’s fastest butterflyers in high school.
But he unexpectedly tore his rotator cuff three months during his senior year before the Eastern Interscholastic Swimming and Diving Championship. His injury effectively put Snellgrove out of the water in his senior year. “The doctors said it was a career-ending injury, back in those days.
I got a diagnosed with a heart problem.
At the Princeton Medical Center, they did all sorts of tests on me. I had a rare heart defect, so I better not ever swim again and never exert itself. I was all set to go to one of the top swimming colleges. It put on the deep end. I ended up in rehab in New Hampshire for detox.
I have a hard head. I spent a year off getting sober. I got talked into swimming at a local YMCA in Massachusetts. One of my buddies asked me to join the swim team.
I jumped in at Cape Ann YMCA and I got back into top shape really quickly. There was a YMCA Championships and broke several YMCA long-course national records.
There was a twist of fate. The head men’s coach of La Salle University [in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] offered me a scholarship on the spot. My dad jumped all over this. I was a Sixties Scoop* kid – this was a genocide policy. They didn’t want the Indian kids to grow up. I was taken from my mother when I was one-day old. They forced my mother to sign a parental release form. I had older brothers and a sister, so my mother went underground and left our reserve.
Early 2003 I went back to our reserve. My mother also went back.
So I was going up in a white world. It was unheard of back then. I grew up on a chip on both shoulders. I was angry. I was angry kid. But swimming was my outlet. The only thing that I couldn’t swim. I had no ability to swim. I saw all my friends be able to swim. So I was angry that I couldn’t swim. I begged my adopted dad to allow me to join the Jersey Yahoos.
When I got to the Jersey Yahoos, I just wanted to win. I wasn’t a nice kid and I took it out in the pool. I wanted to beat everyone. Every practice was one big race to me. I always wanted to win. At the end of my first year, I was one of the top swimmers in my age group. This was all due to my love of swimming and my passion for the water. It really fueled me. It was a great way to deal with my anger issues.
I grew up in fourth, fifth grade and studied social studies. When they talked about winning the West and the books talked about beating the savages. Then everyone looked at me. This was tough to take. I had a target on my back whether I wanted to or not. Every kid wanted to take a swing at me. I may not have won every fight, but the fight was repeated. Everything was settled on the field, outside. It was a different era back then. It was not litigious like today.
La Salle is where Eastern Championships are held every year.
I was in the beach patrol because Philadelphia was close to the New Jersey shore. Atlantic City called La Salle to ask if they had any swimmers to serve as lifeguards. This is where I met Sid Cassidy who was the [USA Swimming] national open water swimming team coach at the time. I really wasn’t that interested in open water swimming, but I think I won every mile swim that I entered during that first summer.”
Cassidy remembers Snellgrove as one really tough kid with great potential for open water swimming. “He was always working hard and extremely competitive.”
Snellgrove recalls those early days of his emerging open water swimming career. “The USA Swimming national team was training down in New Jersey shore back in 1990. So Sid threw me in with these swimmers including Chad Hundeby who previously won the world championships. I beat the national team swimmers on all the local beach swims. I was always competitive and wanting to race these guys.
I entered the 1994 USA Swimming National Open Water Swimming Championships 5 km in Fort Lauderdale. I thought let me take a shot at this. I was training for pool swimming, but I did terrible. I cannot follow what these guys do. I thought about my old high school coach Chris Martin said, ‘There needs to be an unrelenting pursuit of excellence.’
So I knew things needed to change. I decided that I will jump in a pool when I need to, but I needed to train as I saw fit.
I completely changed my training. I changed my stroke. The race didn’t start until the halfway point. So I had to train for the last 3, 4 hours of every race. It made no sense to me to jump in the water and do a million laps. I made that decision myself. I did 15-20 minutes on the erg machine, getting a good fatigue going. When I was jumped in the water, my technique was terrible. I have had serious shoulder injuries. I have to have an economy of motion. I need to be streamlined and smooth as possible. Everyone’s stroke falls apart in the second half of the race. I got angry. I am not going to train to die in the second half; I am going to train to dominate the second half.
I asked the coaches to allow me in the weight room before the workouts. I did that for 4-5 months. The next national championships were in Fort Lauderdale. The next championships were where I won the first 5 km. Everything changed after that. I thought that I could be good in the 10 km and then the 25 km.
I thought I needed to train to dominate. Then that is what you are going to do. I always entered the water and I could barely raise my arms or walk across the pool deck. I broke down my stroke and then worked on technique about my reach, rotation, body position. My shoulders depended on equal rotation on both sides. I knew when I was tired, I knew that I always had to dig a bit deeper.
I would grab a friend and ask them to follow me on a kayak. The second, third and fourth hours of my training swims were faster than the first half. So when I won the [USA Swimming National Open Water Swimming Championships] 10 km race in Melbourne, Florida, I negative split – exactly the way I trained.”
Snellgrove ended up doing ocean swim from Florida to California (La Jolla Rough Water Swim) to Hawaii (Waikiki Roughwater Swim) as well as a bunch of 15 km races and 25 km races both on the national and international levels. At one time, he was even living on the beach (as a homeless person) while training with comfortably housed teammates at the International Swimming Hall of Fame facilities in Fort Lauderdale.
He unfortunately endured numerous shoulder injuries that effectively his career. But before his career was curtailed, he represented the USA at the Pan Pacific Swimming Championships and won a 10 km national championship.
After decades of reflection, Snellgrove is now into a much more creative and spiritual part of his life. “I am more calm and combining different aspects of my biological family and native background. I no longer need to be angry. I am all about spreading the love and peace that is reflected in my artwork.”
And headed back to the ocean where he found so much early success.
The CNN spotlight will be something to see.
* The Sixties Scoop refers to the Canadian practice, beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the late 1980s, of apprehending unusually high numbers of children of Aboriginal peoples in Canada and fostering or adopting them out, usually into non aboriginal families. An estimated 20,000 children were taken from their families and fostered or adopted out to primary white middle-class families.
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