The name Mike Norment should ring a bell with swimming enthusiasts. The former UGA All-American and US National Team Member lives in the Lake Claire neighborhood with his wife Toeanzar (“Nay”), whom he met while in college, his daughter Assata Rose, 10, and his son Moziah, 6. He has an incredible past but his mark on the swimming world has only just begun.
When did you get into swimming?
It was1980 and I was five years old in Hempstead, NY. My mother simply wanted us to be safe in the water. So, she entered us in Village of Hempstead’s “Learn to Swim” program.
Apparently, you learned well…
My brother and I were recruited to swim for Robert Trotman (“Trot’s Finmen”) from1980 to 1989. I attended many meets throughout the tri-state area.
What was it like to be an African-American swimmer 25 years ago?
I rarely saw any African-American swimmers and when I did they would always compete in the same event – 50 yard freestyle. No one believed that African-Americans could swim anything longer than 50 yards.
When you were 13 you made a huge decision to move to Philadelphia from Long Island to train under a pretty special coach named Jim Ellis.
At age 12 I made the Metro Zone Team and I competed with other regions. I met Coach Ellis of the Philadelphia Department of Recreation (PDR). His swimmers were competing in 200 yard backstroke, 400IM. I had never seen African-Americans swimming anything more than a 50 free! Later that summer, our family made a decision to train with him for one summer.
So was it Trotman’s loss and Ellis’ gain?
I dropped a ton of time and I wanted to train in Philly year-round, but my parents were reluctant to send me away. At the same time they didn’t want to stifle my dream of one day swimming in the Olympics. I told Coach Trotman that I wanted to make Jr. Nationals and he laughed at me. So we decided I would permanently train in Philly. Soon after, I qualified for Jr. Nationals in the 100 and 200-meter breaststroke.
There was a movie called Pride made about Coach Ellis in 2007 starring Terrence Howard and Bernie Mac. How accurate was it?
It speaks to the magnitude of Jim’s and PDR’s accomplishments, but I wish they would have told the actual story. Some of his first swimmer’s were gang members and he actually saw some of the gang battles from outside of the Rec center. The movie could have shown how dominant a team PDR was and covered our national titles. And they could have done more to portray the racism in the sport. Still, it’s amazing that a movie was even made.
I read an editorial comment that said if Mike Norment had made the Olympics in 1996 or 2000 the movie would have been made about you. Was there a great deal of disappointment in coming so close and falling just short?
It was extremely difficult and after 2000 I left the sport for five years. I defined myself through my career, so it was as if someone close to me had died. I would have been fine if I had swam my best time, but I did not. That was the most disappointing thing. My parents and wife encouraged me to get back into the sport in some way.
I think I need to point out that you could certainly do a little bragging because you don’t seem the type…
You’re right, I don’t brag much and all my awards are packed away. But I’ll brag a little for you. ‘94 SEC Champion, 8-time All-American, US Men’s National Team in 1997 and1999, Ranked fourth in the world in the 100-meter breaststroke in 1998,12th in the world 200-meter breaststroke.
You are a big guy. Did the football staff at UGA ever try to persuade you to get out of the pool and put on some pads?
On my recruiting trip to Georgia, I met head Coach Ray Goff. He whispered to me that if I ever got tired of swimming I could always try playing safety.
Do you have any eligibility left? They could use you right now! You and Nathan Jones (All-American at University of Miami) now teach swimming (swimwithapurpose-atlanta.com). How gratifying is it to pass along your skills and knowledge to youngsters?
I love teaching people of all ages how to swim. We bring out the confidence our swimmers have within themselves. It amazes me to see what people, especially children, are capable of.
My son Elliott has what some might politely term a ‘healthy fear’ of the water (I’d have claw marks on my neck), but then he worked with you and now it’s “Watch this, Daddy!”
We are successful because we are compassionate. Going underwater in a huge pool with a stranger can be scary. So we always tell the truth to our swimmers – no tricks. We’re calm, gentle and patient. We have to be the rock. We challenge and support them.
Do you and Coach Nate ever line up for a race between the two of you to see who still has it?
Yes, we do. I normally destroy him. Occasionally, I let him win to make him feel good.