Luminaries v2: Interview with Paulana Lamonier
After learning how to swim with the help of coaches in 2009 at a CUNY New York college, Paulana Lamonier, nurtured her love for swimming and became inspired to help others overcome their fear of water and the stereotypes that say that Black people don't swim. For over a decade, she has shared her passion for swimming by working with swim clubs, teams and gyms to build a community with her students. She's also a multimedia journalist who has made a career of telling compelling stories, has written for an impressive list of publications, and has interviewed some of our favorite people. We were more than delighted to share space with Paulana about her important work the community.
This livestream of this interview was broadcast March 14, 2022.
crescent bleu: Paulana, tell us a little bit about your path to becoming a passionate swimmer and coach. What did the role to nurturing your love for swimming look like?
Paulana: Oh, interesting. So my journey kind of started as a kid. My parents put my sisters and I in a local swim program near the house and that's kind of where I met some of my friends that I'm still really good friends with today. And then from there, I joined my college swim team because I needed to lose weight. My doctor was like, listen, you are overweight. You got to do something about it. And here's the thing. I've always been an active person. I was just plus sized. And so that's kind of like how my journey with sports has always been. I may have not been the fastest or the strongest, but I was you know— I've won sportsmanship awards. I've been captain on teams. And so my love for swimming really just started from my love of sports, my love of being active, my love of the competition and the team spirit of things. From there, I joined my college swim team and I was really, really dedicated and my coach took me under his wing and really showed me the ins and outs of what it's like being a coach and seeing him like "Go! what's going on- what you doing? Come on, man." Like, he was not— he would not play. He was really tough. But really seeing him in that atmosphere of being one of the few Black teams in a predominantly white sport, I was like, "Yo, this is, this is dope. This is amazing." And then he took me under his wing, and then now we're here.
crescent bleu: All right. Okay. So what was the defining moment sort of along that journey or after that journey that lit that fire? That said this is really important work. I heard you mention the kind of the aha moment that- here's a sport that you love and you're excelling at that is a predominantly white sport. What was the defining moment for you that took it from a personal passion to... I'm going to bring this to my community and make this my mission for Black people. How did that happen?
Paulana: So I've been teaching people for a while now. So I think 2009 kind of makes it more than ten years. But that moment happened when I came... I went to my friend. This is the real, real story. I'm giving you the tea, girl. Giving you the tea, mkay! So I hit up my friend Stephanie and she was like an accountant and I was like, Yo, I got this idea. Like, I just want to start a swim program. But at that time, I couldn't come up with a name. I wanted to do it with my sister but it was just an idea. It came and then it left.
This is the real, real story. I'm giving you the tea, girl. Giving you the tea, mkay! So I hit up my friend Stephanie and she was like an accountant and I was like, Yo, I got this idea... But at that time, I couldn't come up with a name.
crescent bleu: What year was that about?
Paulana: If I started the challenge in 2019, which I'll get to, that was probably like 2017. So then the idea came and then it left once I realized like how many obstacles I had to go through to get it going. So then 2019 comes around and I tweet like - and I'm teaching, I'm doing private lessons. I'm teaching people here and there, at my gym, at different pools, you know, just to bring in some extra income. And I was like, "You know what? I want to do a challenge where I'm teaching, I want to teach 30 people how to swim one summer" and I put it out on Twitter. And then from there it went viral, like 5,000 plus tweets. People like, “Yo, come to L.A., come to Florida, Atlanta”, and I'm just like, "Oh, I'm in New York. Hold up." I'm in New York, so I don't know how are we going to make this happen?
But my sister and I - so I was like, I realized that I really couldn't teach 30 people on my own because that means I would have to work and teach them almost every day, which is really exhausting. And so I enlisted my sister and then so we kind of tag team. Yeah, I listed my sister. We tag team. I said, I'm going to take ten. You take ten. And we took it from there. And then from there we taught 30, 30 people that summer. And then as I realized like, yo, we really on to something.
So now I'm asking Twitter, I'm like, "Aight Twitter. You helped me get the clients, help me come up with a name." But as the names started coming out, I was like, I don't really like these names. So I was like, How about I'm gonna just call it "Black People Will Swim" for now and then maybe come up with the idea later. But I'm gonna get my EIN number. I'm gonna get all the legal documents ready to go and then I'll probably revisit the name at a later time. But then as I was talking to my swim coach, he was like... Why don't you just keep it Black People Will Swim? There's Black Women Run, there's Black Men Run, there's Black Girl Code.
Why don't you just keep it Black People Will Swim?
crescent bleu: There's Black Girls Rock.
Paulana: Right. And I was like, "You right! You right!" And then we're here now. We're Black People Will Swim.
crescent bleu: Paulana, I didn't realize until that beautiful video that was just shot with your family that this was a family business. I didn't realize that your sister was also part of the story, which is really interesting. Did she also learn with you growing up? Did you guys participate in teams together? Where was her journey alongside yours?
Paulana: Yeah, so I have two sisters. I'm the eldest of three, so it's myself and then I have Charlene, who is the middle child and who's 26, and then we have Myra, who you saw in that video, who is 23.
Pretty much, it was Myra. Myra also took the swim classes with my sister and I, but just at a later time. And so from there, you know, she was really good in swimming. And so when I told my parents about like, hey, you know, I'm actually coaching this team, you know, this would be really good for Myra. And so we put Myra in that competitive swim team as well. And so I was a coach for my sister at one point.
We just work really well together, I think. I guess the reason why I never really mentioned it was because I felt like I didn't want people to take this as a hobby.
crescent bleu: Right.
Paulana: You know, I didn't want people to say, "Oh, she got her sisters and her cousin. Oh, then nobody going to take this serious." You know, that's, that's how I felt. I felt like people weren't going to take this as seriously if I didn't say she was my sister and also because this was a trial run, I didn't know how long she was going to be able to work with us because that is my sister. One day, you know, I might be like, "You know what? Forget you. You're fired." (laughs) You know, things happen. So I didn't know, you know, where this was going to go working with her. So I just always said, hey, I'm going to introduce you to our aquatics coordinator, who is Myra. And then if you figure it out, you figure it out. Those who know, they know now.
crescent bleu: It's interesting that you said your perception was that you didn't want it to be taken as a hobby. And it's funny because that's another thing, too, when Black people make businesses and our friends and our families are equipped and we have the knowledge and we are stronger together. So I'm really excited to see that aspect of it.
What were and are some of your biggest challenges in building space for Black People Will Swim?
Paulana: One of the biggest challenges in creating this space is encountering a lot of the different opinions of, like, 'Black People Will Swim' you know that people are going to have an issue with that name or, you know, white people are going to have an issue with that name or why don't you call it people will swim. Why does it have to be black people? You know, why?
crescent bleu: (laughs) or People of Color Will Swim?
Paulana: Right! And it's like well, I'm calling it Black People Will Swim because I'm highlighting an issue that is within the Black community that Black people drown at higher rates than other races. So if you have a problem with that maybe you should look into the actual problem. You have a problem with the name, but you don't have a problem with the actual reason why we're drowning.
crescent bleu: Right.
Paulana: You know, and therefore, your focus is - you're focusing on the wrong thing. So that has been one of the main issues that we've encountered in the beginning. At this point, I don't see it as an issue anymore. It's not my issue. It's your problem at this point. They're like, 'Aren't you afraid that white people are going to have an issue?' I said,"Look, let me tell you something. White people are the ones that give me the money." They're the ones who are helping me... not saying that they're the main customer. They are donating and supporting us and- those who don't have an issue?... they understand their privilege. They understand the American history and how complex it is and how wrong it is and how it still has a ripple effect into today's society. So that's one of the issues that we've encountered and we're dealing with.
crescent bleu: You have been the recipient of quite a lot of grants. I feel like you are an entrepreneurial rockstar. What skills and or resources is most important while preparing for and procuring funding for your business?
Paulana: Me being a journalist has helped me a lot in this field, reading- and it's just reading and writing. People don't understand when you are applying for grants, which that can be a whole other conversation but, it is really important to read the rules. It is important to go into the official rules of that section and read it down. When is the deadline? What are the requirements? What is needed from you? They'll have that call to action as far as like, 'Hey tell us why you should win this grant.' But it's in the official rules. They do the rubric of how they are judging you. So you really want to cater your responses to how you are going to be judged. Not so much the call out question. So that's a little tidbit. Like I said, the reading and writing, I love entertaining people. I love telling stories. I'm quite talkative. So that helps me as far as creating the brand story that's helped us get national coverage and just me being wildly ambitious with our goals. You know, our first goal was to teach 2,020 black people, but COVID had other plans, but that's still a goal of ours to this day. So I think those are the qualities that have really helped me.
crescent bleu: Paulana, you had an amazing 2021. I've watched some of your stories with you and your students, you and your coaching staff. Tell us about some of the success stories of your students, your staff and for Black People Will Swim.
Paulana: One with our students, she was actually one of the first people who took private lessons with us. She says, because of you, I vacation different. I was like, "I know that's right!" You know, she's no longer fearful of going in the pool, going to the beach. There is a certain level of freedom that swimming allows you to have when you're on vacation or when you're by the water. Another story is this young lady, she signed up for the swim program because her significant other had enrolled her. He was like "Yo, let's go. You're going to learn how to swim." He signed her up, and then maybe like a few days before classes started, he passed away.
crescent bleu: Oh, no.
Paulana: It was tough. It was tough. So her first day of learning how to swim, I think she jumped off the deep end. I was like, he would be so proud of you. Literally I started crying, and then she started crying. Because it's bigger than us. This is generational.
So those are two stories from our student perspective. Staff- we certify our staff for free. Everyone on our team has been certified for free. That's kind of one of the liberating things. You need $400 / $500 to get a certification. That's unfair.
crescent bleu: Right.
Paulana: So those are the success stories.
crescent bleu: That's the other thing I think that's really important about your platform is you're creating an entire ecosystem of belonging to the water space. It's not just learning how to swim, it's passing it on to. Creating opportunities from coach to coach and be certified for free which I've heard you talk about in your pitch competitions. I love that aspect of generating opportunity down the line and just completing that whole circle. So that's awesome.
Paulana: Thank you.
crescent bleu: Let's talk about some of your other creative endeavors. So over the last couple years, not only are you hosting or creating the space for swimming, but you have your hands in a lot of different other projects. Tell us about some of those creative endeavors over the last couple of years and what has been the best part or the most unexpected outcome of those endeavors?
Paulana: Just being able to be creative, that has been the best outcome. I did a little YouTube series, not little. I did a YouTube series! Ain't nothing little about what I do on this side. I'm all about doing things big. Life is short, life is not guaranteed. So I'm going to do it big. That show brought me a lot of joy, brought people a lot of joy. You know, it's expensive to produce a show and so that's the only reason why there's only one season. But God willing, you know, finances won't be an option in the new season that I'm in. So we'll see.
crescent bleu: Now, you had a special guest that you introduced in that film. That was the first time that I had seen her.
Paulana: Oh, my grandma?
crescent bleu: My favorite granny on the gram.
Paulana: Yes, she's awesome.
crescent bleu: I think the first time I saw her on your channel was when you guys were doing a dance lesson or something together.
Paulana: Yeah, that was the first episode.
crescent bleu: Oh, that was the first episode. All right. Besides swimming, tell us about your typical workout routine and the favorite benefits of your chosen exercise, because I know it's not just swimming. You're very active.
Paulana: My favorite workout routine, you know, I actually just switched gyms. This gym is very similar to Orangetheory, but it's Haitian owned.
crescent bleu: All right, I've seen you doing that. I was like, damn, that's a lot of heavy weights.
Paulana: Yeah, it's in the hundreds.
crescent bleu: That's awesome. How has your culture influenced you professionally? Well, you kind of spoke about this already. The role family plays in your personal and professional life, but tie that into culture. How does your culture influence you?
Paulana: It influences me a lot. My culture, my upbringing, my parents, they work really, really hard. My parents are like natural morning people. So I'm a morning person, you know. I woke up this morning and told the trainer, "Hey, good morning." He's like, wow, you're really a morning person. I'm like, Yeah, I really am. It's just natural. My family and I will all be up, you know, starting our day at six. Well, I'm up at 5:00, 5:30, but we're having full blown conversations and laughing in the morning because there is a sense of joy that it comes with when you wake up and your family's there and you could crack jokes and stuff. There's a joy that I see, that I feel, that I experience in the morning with my family. So that's something that I don't take for granted. They work really hard. My mom is still working two jobs, so she works six days a week. They really taught me the importance of hard work, but also enjoying the fruits of our labor. My mom was a nurse and my dad was a New York City cab driver, but they sent me to private school. Summer vacation every summer, on cruises. So they afforded me a life that wasn't determined by their occupation, but was really determined by their work ethic.
crescent bleu: Beautiful. I could see that. How do you balance time for yourself? Your personal wellness? What does that look like for you?
Paulana: I'm still figuring that out, but I just leave moments for me in the day. So whether that's devotion in the evening, whether it's just kind of like shutting out, closing my laptop for the day. Spending time with my significant other. I really, really love my partner. He's amazing. We just go out and we have a good time. We love going to festivals, so I can't tell you how many shows we've been to, but we love, love, love music. So that's kind of like my self care and and just spending time with my folks— and walks. I walk a lot also. Now that the weather is getting better, I need to get my walk on. But walking all the time, over the summer, I go walking in the morning with my grandmother or in the evening with my grandmother, just to walk and just talk. So that's how I take care of myself.
crescent bleu: That's cool. All right. So now I have to ask you this, because I was going to ask you about music, individual tunes, but now I want to know about the music festivals. What have been your favorite festivals that you've attended?
Paulana: Where do I start? We went to Made in America which was a really good time. I've seen so many people in shows and concerts. We went to Rolling Loud. Not just with him, but with my other friends as well, I've seen Madea Live. I've seen Tamela Mann- shout out to my friend Valencia. She be hooking us up with some tickets, chile. Rihanna. I saw Rihanna live and that was amazing. I would have cherished that moment even more had I known that was going to be the last time I see her.
crescent bleu: Right. Right. Because that was prior, all prior 2020.
Speaking of musicians, you've had the opportunity to interview some of our favorite people, including a notable musician and actress. Tell us about that.
Paulana: We talking about Queen Latifah?
crescent bleu: (laughs) We talking about Queen Latifah.
Paulana: She was amazing. Interviewing her, it was surreal. I've interviewed her twice, so it was pretty dope to interview her. I'm just like, Lord, just set up the opportunity where, you know, I could... work with her. We kind of look alike, we could do a movie together or a show. Do it, Jesus, come on. She was great. She was real down to Earth. It just really showed me what's possible when you are at the right place at the right time and you stay ready so you don't have to get ready.
crescent bleu: All right. Is there anybody else that you want to discuss? How did you get those - what were you doing when you ended up interviewing Queen Latifah? What was the path for that? I'm curious.
Paulana: So as a journalist, I was freelancing for Forbes. I was a Forbes contributor. Being a contributor for that platform has afforded me a number of cool opportunities to interview some really amazing women like Venus Williams.
crescent bleu: That I didn't know. I just learned that.
Paulana: She was cool to interview. That interview was super last minute, though, so I felt like real unprepared also. Like the morning of, it was hey, do you want to interview Venus Williams.
crescent bleu: Oh, that is pressure. Understatement.
Paulana: I was like, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. I want to." I texted my friend like, Okay, girl, what questions do I ask her? She was amazing to interview.
crescent bleu: Alright. Let's see. We are winding down to the end. What advice can you give someone who is still struggling with their relationship to the water that can help them take one step closer to making the promise to learning how to swim and conquering their fears?
Paulana: One, don't beat yourself up. You are not alone. You're not the only one to really figure out the why. Some people may not know the why and some people do- maybe as plain as day. But what's your reasoning? Why? Why haven't you learned how to swim? Was it a childhood experience? Did somebody push you in or did you trip in? Maybe you were swimming really well and then you had a moment, an incident happened. Really figure out the why. Sometimes you may have not experienced something, maybe you've seen something happen. So you're just like, I'm good. So just kind of figure out the why and then figure out what part of swimming are you struggling with? Is it putting your face in the water? Putting your mouth in, getting your toes in?
crescent bleu: Is it endurance? (laughs and raises hand)
Paulana: Right, because everyone is different and endurance, that takes time. That's years, baby. That is very long. Breathing is the toughest. Really just seeing how you can get private lessons, if you can afford it. Maybe perhaps doing intimate classes. So maybe you and a friend, maybe getting a friend to join with you on that. Someone that you trust. Someone that's not going to show out in the swim class, like "I took you to swim class and now you swimming better than me?" You know, because that happens. Like, "Girl, you want to learn how to swim?" "Yeah, I want to learn how to swim." And next thing you know, your friend is swimming a lap on this third class and you still trying to float. Listen, maybe get a friend that won't judge you, that is endearing and is empowering. So really having a companion.
crescent bleu: I have one such friend like that. She's actually on the live right now. My friend Ro, who took a pledge. She probably won't mind me shouting her out. I don't know how many years ago it was and she excelled so well. I remember hearing all her stories and then she sort of started dragging me on Saturday to go with her and do our little practice laps in the Y but my endurance is- you know. The founder of the swimwear brand is hugging the wall a little bit sometimes. (laughs)
Paulana: (laugh) It happens.
crescent bleu: But we're going to fix that.
Paulana: Yes, that's what it's all about.
crescent bleu: All right. Let's see if we can take a few questions from the viewers.
Paulana: Yes. Ask away, y'all.
[interview pauses to display socials and website info for BPWS:
crescent bleu™: This one is from my dad. "Your mom quit swimming lessons three times, what should she do now?" I actually have a vivid childhood memory of her mom and her sister, my aunt, taking swim lessons together at the Y. I think it was the Y in their matching swimsuits.
Paulana: That is so cute.
crescent bleu: I'm pretty sure that neither of them- sorry for the mom for the blast - but it didn't happen.
Paulana: I'm kind of curious. How were they taking swim lessons? Were they private lessons?
crescent bleu: I mean, I remember... I seem to remember a small group. I know right now that my mom does do water exercise. I don't know if she's doing it currently, but I know prior to the pandemic she was doing water exercise as a movement option but not swimming. But also the other flipside of that story is that my mom put me in lessons at a young age. I also did not learn how to swim when I took the lessons. I was very afraid of the water. Really afraid. I don't think I got out of that basic level of fear until maybe after college.
Paulana: Wow. What do you think? What made the change?
crescent bleu: Honestly, for me, I think it was travel. I think it was seeing water outside of it being a pool. I know that sounds a little weird, but just the sheer magnitude of what that element looks like, you know, in a wide open space and just being overwhelmed with the sheer beauty of it. I just, I was like, I have to get in this water and figure this out. That's where it was for me. And then also, I think there's a little bit of ease in the ocean. Right, comparatively to a pool?
Paulana: It's different. I think it depends on who you talk to. For me, sometimes the sea can be a little overbearing. It can be a bit much because you have so many factors. You have the wind, the sun, the salt, the waves, you know. So there's a lot- there are a lot of uncontrollable factors, whereas in the pool, it's a controlled body of water.
crescent bleu: True. True. There are a couple of more comments from my dad. He said that there were group lessons and that my mom says she's coming to New York to have you teach her how to swim.
Paulana: Okay. Because Black people will swim! You will swim in our program. You will swim.
crescent bleu: Thank you so much, Paulana, for doing this with me. This has been really great. I thank you for sharing yourself with our platform. What can we do to support Black People Will Swim? Is there anything in particular that you'd like to ask of the audience?
Paulana: I think just continue to support Black People Will Swim. Follow us on Instagram, follow us across all of our platforms. Even if you are not able to take some lessons with us because you may not live in New York or may not be in the area where we're offering lessons, please make that promise to yourself that you'll learn how to swim and most importantly support black businesses. Y'all following crescent bleu, so that is a given. But really support black businesses but also go easy on them as well. I guess I come from a place of understanding that we have a lot less resources than our counterparts. But we are making things happen.
crescent bleu: Right, at the same quality level.
Paulana: At the same quality level!
crescent bleu: Support black businesses because we are doing it and doing it unapologetically.
crescent bleu: Yes. Thank you for your time. I really appreciate it.
Paulana: Thank you.
Listen- BPWS is in peak season. Paulana's mission and Black People Will Swim are putting in that work! We were honored to have this generous moment with her. We hope this interview inspires you if you are still struggling to swim... or gives you new insight to support or encourage this mission and someone else's journey. Live playback of the interview is available on crescent bleu's FB page linked below... (tip: Paulana is not only a stellar entrepreneur and committed swim activist, she is funnny!) Ok grab your goggles, swim cap, and swimming suits ; ) and keep on swimming!