The Teacher Behind the Movie 'Pride'

The new film Pride is based on the story of math teacher Jim Ellis, who fought off racial prejudice in the 1970s to put together an all-black swim team in north Philadelphia. Ellis continues to train young black swimmers.

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And now from politics to pictures. The new movie "Pride" smashes the stereotype that blacks cannot swim. It's loosely based on the life of Jim Ellis, who built a swim team of national caliber in North Philadelphia. Nancy Greenleese of member station KUNC in Greeley, Colorado, made a documentary about Ellis a dozen years ago and has this update.

NANCY GREENLEESE: I joined my first swim team in 1972. That's the same year math teacher Jim Ellis started his team at a Philadelphia recreation center. My swimming world was whitewashed. White kids splashing in sparkling suburban pools while white coaches barked out times. I never had a black teammate until college in 1984. So in the early 1990s when I heard about Ellis, I knew I had to check him out at a meet.

Unidentified Man: Singled up, (unintelligible). Jim Ellis, see me coming. Get on that side, Earl. You got that?

GREENLEESE: Ellis, a pudgy black man, and the swimmers from his Philadelphia Department of Recreation team, PDR for short, were the only black people at the meet. Less than a decade earlier, baseball executive Al Campanis had declared that black people lacked the buoyancy to swim.

And of course he wasn't the first to say that. Ellis still tells his athletes to face down stereotypes. To this day, they strut on to the deck at meets, sit in the prime spot, and send the white competition a message.

Mr. JIM ELLIS (Founder, Philadelphia Department of Recreation Swim Team): We are here. We're not going away. You can't close your eyes and we're going to be gone when you open your eyes. We're here, and we're going to stay here.

GREENLEESE: But they'd often return from warm-ups to find their gear piled in a corner. Such racist acts dominate the team's history and get a lot of attention in the new movie. Ellis recalls a swim meet in a small Pennsylvania town.

Mr. ELLIS: A couple of parents approached me in the hall and said, you know, you have basketball, you have track, you have football, you have boxing, now you want swimming. And I just kind of laughed because he didn't look like he was being vicious. It looked like he was just kind of ignorant. We're infringing upon their sport.

GREENLEESE: And he's done so without a country club pool or team psychologist, perks that I considered normal. PDR practices in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Nicetown, which it isn't. Drug deals go down outside the pool, while inside cockroaches practically have their own locker room.

But I watched Ellis make the chilly pool into a warm home where kids were expected to perform.

Mr. ELLIS: (unintelligible). Come on, Bob. Let's get with it.

GREENLEESE: Ellis' program made waves on the national scene when his protégée, Michael Norman, became the U.S. national team's first black swimmer. But Ellis' finest work is done on land, serving as a role model for kids like then 17-year-old Damon Small(ph).

Mr. DAMON SMALL (Philadelphia Department of Recreation Swimming Team): He is the father. He is the teacher. And he's like a lieutenant general or something because he will keep you in line. If you do something bad outside of the pool, he'll know about it. I don't know how, but he'll know about it. He keeps us straight.

GREENLEESE: Ellis demanded that the kids dedicate themselves at school and in the pool, as made clear during one practice.

Mr. ELLIS: What are you here for? You can't keep excellent by not practicing. You don't want to practice? Anybody who don't want to practice, get your gear, clean your locker out and I'll find another team for you to swim.

GREENLEESE: Nobody volunteered because they knew they were lucky to be getting the chance to succeed. PDR swimmers have reached the sport's highest ranks, and more than a hundred have attended college on swimming scholarships. Among them was Damon Small, who knew PDR was training him for more than swimming races.

Mr. SMALL: In my job, later in the future, I'm sure that I'll have a better chance of doing my job better than another person because I've learned patience and I've learned discipline. I think it's really an honor on PDR swim team.

GREENLEESE: Today, Small is a social worker. His teammates are corporate executives, teachers and nurses. Many giving back to the community just like Jim Ellis.

One PDR alumni told me she is ready for the movie's sequel, "Pride 2." She says it would be the uplifting, true tale about the successful lives of these swimmers from the hood.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Greenleese.

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