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Saving Lives One Routine at a Time

For more than 40 years, a synchronised swimming club in Harlem has helped keep members active in the water and in their community.

Last updated: August 12, 2021

"In Good Company" is a series about athletic teams and clubs that are challenging the status quo.

In a small cul-de-sac off Harlem's West 135th Street, twenty-odd self-proclaimed "old-timers" in masks and matching red tracksuits greet each other with elbow bumps instead of hugs. For the first time in months, they mingle in front of the Hansborough Recreation Center—known to them as simply "The Bathhouse". Within its stunning mosaic-tiled pool, these women and men have practised their strokes and balletic eggbeater kicks as part of the Harlem Honeys & Bears, a senior-citizen synchronised swimming team that's been making waves since 1979. The team's name was inspired by a bit of late '70s slang, according to team member Rasheedah Ali. "There were men and women; women are 'honeys'; and bears love honey! So they called themselves the Harlem Honeys & Bears", she says of the inaugural team.

Some members of the team have been swimming their entire lives, segregated pools notwithstanding; others didn't conquer their fear of the water until they were well into their 60s. Together, they've won awards, overcome chronic illnesses, forged friendships, and perhaps most importantly, shared their passion and skills with the community at large through a youth swimming programme. "Your reward as a coach is to see these young men and women gliding through the water with the least effort", says Luther Gales, team president. And when studies show that Black youth are statistically more likely to become victims of accidental death by drowning, the Harlem Honeys & Bears are doing more than sharing the gift of sport—they're saving lives.

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Meet the Honeys & Bears

Harlem Honeys & Bears

Rasheedah Ali

Born in Cincinnati in 1935, Rasheedah loved the water from an early age and was known as "the Black Esther Williams" for her childhood water acrobatics. Eventually, she moved north to New York City and has been there ever since: "I love Harlem—don't want to be any place else. My next stop will be paradise", she says.

Harlem Honeys & Bears

Monica Hale

"If you can float, you can do synchronised swimming", says team captain Monica, who's found refuge in the water throughout her life experiences. Of the relationships she and her teammates have formed over time, she explains, "You have to really know them, because their life is in your hands".

Harlem Honeys & Bears

Joyce Clarke

After years of being afraid of the water, a serious health issue at 62 made Joyce realise that she wanted to overcome her fear and learn to swim. She's been on the team ever since. "My body still wakes up [early] on Mondays and Wednesdays", she says of her natural inclination to swim in the local pool since it was closed due to COVID-19.

Harlem Honeys & Bears

Monica Hale

"If you can float, you can do synchronised swimming", says team captain Monica, who's found refuge in the water throughout her life experiences. Of the relationships she and her teammates have formed over time, she explains, "You have to really know them, because their life is in your hands".

Harlem Honeys & Bears

Joyce Clarke

After years of being afraid of the water, a serious health issue at 62 made Joyce realise that she wanted to overcome her fear and learn to swim. She's been on the team ever since. "My body still wakes up [early] on Mondays and Wednesdays", she says of her natural inclination to swim in the local pool since it was closed due to COVID-19.

Harlem Honeys & Bears

Luther Gales

Team president Luther is a retired police officer, former Marine, lifelong athlete, dancer, dandy and coach. "We're teaching kids how to swim so they can save their own selves, and possibly save someone else", says Luther.

Harlem Honeys & Bears

Oliver Footé

"They had a team when I got there, but I improved it", says the man known simply as "Mr Footé" or "Coach" to members of the team. Oliver is an exacting instructor who began performing in water shows when he was 9 years old.

Harlem Honeys & Bears

Lettice Graham

At 98 years old, Lettice is the oldest member of the Harlem Honeys & Bears. She learnt to swim after she retired at the age of 64 and attributes her time in the water to her lasting good health.

Harlem Honeys & Bears

Oliver Footé

"They had a team when I got there, but I improved it", says the man known simply as "Mr Footé" or "Coach" to members of the team. Oliver is an exacting instructor who began performing in water shows when he was 9 years old.

Harlem Honeys & Bears

Lettice Graham

At 98 years old, Lettice is the oldest member of the Harlem Honeys & Bears. She learnt to swim after she retired at the age of 64 and attributes her time in the water to her lasting good health.

Harlem Honeys & Bears

Jean Miller

"I avoided swimming all my life", Jean says, until the Harlem Honeys & Bears saw her at a shallow-end water aerobics class and scouted her at the age of 63. Getting involved with the team keeps her active both in and out of the pool, from teaching local youth to marching in the African American Day Parade. "When I came out and joined, I realised it wasn't just about being on a team and swimming. I'm going places", Jean says of the motivation her time on the team has given her.

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Film: Keenan MacWilliam & Orian Barki
Photography: Flo Ngala
Words: Roxanne Fequiere

Reported: September 2020

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