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Clinique Brundidge’s talent in the pool is remarkable. The
fact that the sophomore came to Michigan on an academic
scholarship, not an athletic scholarship, is remarkable. So is the
balancing act she pulls — swimming for an elite NCAA Division
I program while majoring in materials science and Engineering.

Laura Wong

The fact that Brundidge is black is not remarkable. It’s
just her skin color. But it certainly makes her unique.

Jim Richardson, who has guided the Wolverines since 1985, can
recall coaching just one other black swimmer at Michigan.
Currently, there are two black female swimmers in the entire Big
Ten — Brundidge and Indiana’s Jinji Fraser.

But for Brundidge, who grew up in Southfield, it has always been
like that. Her parents put her in swimming lessons as a child for
safety reasons — they knew several people who had drowned.
Brundidge took to the sport and joined a YMCA team in Detroit that
had all black swimmers. She soon switched to a more competitive
team, and since then, she has almost always been the only black
swimmer.

She could have felt isolated or intimidated or discouraged. But
Brundidge didn’t let that happen. She hasn’t just
accepted being one of just a few black swimmers; she has embraced
that role.

“I have two different worlds,” Brundidge said.
“My friends from home and from (school), and then my swim
team. And I don’t know if it would be okay if I had like a
birthday party, and they all came together. It might be
uncomfortable.

“But that’s just how it is. And I don’t look
at it as a negative. I look at it as a positive. I can teach (one
group) some stuff that they don’t know, and I can learn
something new that I can take back to my other friends.”

Richardson said Brundidge, who this year switched from sprints
to middle-distance races and started swimming the 200-yard
butterfly for the first time, has fit in just fine with her
teammates.

“She’s very comfortable, I think, with who she
is,” Richardson said. “I think that allows her to
— in groups of people that have their heads screwed on
straight about the quality of your character versus the color of
your skin — blend right in beautifully, because she’s a
wonderful person.”

Brundidge said that, for the most part, people throughout her
career have been welcoming. But sometimes it’s not easy to be
different from everyone else.

At a young age, “White people would look at me and say,
‘oh she’s black. I’m not used to black
people.’ So I was a representation of all black people.
It’s kind of a lot of pressure. Still, people are looking at
me all the time.”

And that can be an opportunity — as well as a sign of
progress. When Brundidge was growing up, there was no one to look
to. Except for at one camp she attended in Colorado, she rarely met
other highly-skilled black swimmers. So she’s keenly aware of
what it can mean to have a role model, and she gladly takes on that
responsibility.

“I try to be inspirational to other black people to come
and swim, too,” Brundidge said.

Brundidge goes back to Detroit to talk to young swimmers, and
when she’s at school, she sometimes calls the kids to see how
they’re doing and to encourage them. She said she emphasizes
not just her swimming skills, but also the fact that she’s an
aspiring engineer.

That’s a heavy load — swimmer, student and the sole
role model for young, black swimmers. But rather than weigh her
down, being in that position motivates her.

“I’m setting a good example, and that makes me not
want to quit, because I want other people to look at me and say,
‘If she can do it, so can I.’ ”

Besides, it has its benefits.

“It feels really good when they come up to you and they
think you’re a superstar,” Brundidge said.
“I’m not the best in the country, but they think
so.”

Richardson said that although there are efforts to increase the
sport’s diversity, it has been a slow process. He said the
number of elite minority swimmers is pretty much
“static—and by that I mean relatively low. (Swimming)
isn’t, generally speaking, a sport that has appealed to the
African-American community at large.”

But somewhere in Metro Detroit, there is a group of young, black
swimmers who have their sights set on Clinique Brundidge’s
youth records. The next African American who swims for Michigan may
not be so unique, and it could be because Brundidge has seized the
chance to be a leader and an inspiring example.

That’s even more remarkable.

Courtney Lewis can be reached at
“mailto:cmlewis@umich.edu”>cmlewis@umich.edu.

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