Herman Kelly, 67, Baton Rouge, Louisiana
You can talk about skill, physical ability and focus as key elements needed to be a successful athlete at any age. One also needs the intangible boost and motivation that comes from having a passion for your sport to see it through.
Herman Kelly’s passion for swimming goes much deeper than the confines of a pool or his own goals and has impacted many more lives than his own.
Herman grew up at a time when segregation barriers still existed and African Americans had little to no choices for a safe place to swim. His parents made it a point to get lessons for their children, but neither they or the youngster had any idea how this would shape his growth and later provide a path to better aging.
In the following edited conversation, Herman explains that his name translates as “African Warrior” and his passion for competition is fierce, but a bigger passion led him to the clergy to be a spiritual warrior serving others.
Herman became a lifeguard and also swam with his high school team. He was delighted to obtain a partial scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta, which had the most dominant swim team among historically black colleges at the time. He also shares that he first felt the call from God during this time but fought it off. While earning his master’s degree in education and aquatics at Springfield College, he made the decision to become a preacher and went on to Boston University for a second master’s degree in divinity.
He began as a preacher in Massachusetts, and then moved to Louisiana to lead the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge. He concurrently became an African American religion instructor at Louisiana State University. 22 years later, he is now an adjunct professor teaching African American Studies, but the campus and the greater community know Herman better as a swimmer on a mission.
Part of that mission is personal, because he says his workload caused him to fall off from swimming, and he realized in 2014 he had to get back to the pool to regain his health and fitness. He discovered Senior Games and has been training and competing ever since.
In our talk, Herman reveals his greater mission has been to teach African American youth to swim, a passion that is rooted in his memory of witnessing a friend drown as a teenager. His church operates the only swimming ministry in the state that teaches dozens of children annually. You will also learn how his wife’s battle with breast cancer has created a second passion to raise money for cancer survivors.
Overcoming life’s challenges and obstacles is key to pursuing a Personal Best lifestyle. Herman Kelly’s faith and his parent’s wisdom have given him the “weapons” to forge his path as a spiritual warrior. We all have our own path, and Herman hopes his story inspires you on yours.
Herman, tell us how you started swimming. Who influenced you?
My parents. One day, they told my sister and me that they were going to enroll us in swimming lessons. The only place we could swim was at a segregated pool called Washington Heights in Jacksonville, FL. It was a phobia for African Americans to learn how to swim because most couldn’t swim in a pool, so we would swim in a creek or in a pond. And if you swim in a creek or a pond, you know they have undercurrents, undertows and drop-offs. So my parents wanted us to learn how to swim.
My father would take us to lessons and they were .25 cents each. I remember my coach saying, ‘Mr. Kelly, you will never learn how to swim until you learn to let yourself go and let the water hold you up.’ I kept going every year doing recreation swim, and then I was a lifeguard at 16 and got on my high school team. Everybody knew Herman as one of the best black swimmers in the community. Everybody would want to race against us and we would always beat them. My first swimming trophy felt like a million dollars. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Then I got a partial scholarship to Morehouse College and made the swim team, which was like the football team at a school like LSU. They were the national black champions in the ‘70s. My uncle was my mentor and he showed me a catalog and told me Morehouse was a good school. My classmates told me I wasn’t smart enough and that I was wasting my time, but I got in and made the team. I wasn’t their best swimmer, but I could swim everything and did it all four years. I felt like royalty when I came home from college.
Before that, I got called by God when I was 18 but I wanted to have fun instead of preaching. I fought the call while I was at Morehouse.
So you became a preacher?
Yes, after I went to Springfield College in Massachusetts for my master’s in education with a concentration in aquatics. Springfield is a mecca for athletes. I wanted to be a swim coach and Coach Silvia hired me as a grad assistant.
While I was at Springfield I joined a church, and the pastor looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Kelly, why are you running from your call? It’s all over you that you are running.’ That was 1980. I finally surrendered after 10 years. I called Boston University and made an appointment to meet with the dean. I went there and got my Masters of Divinity. After graduating, I started pastoring at my first church in Newport, Rhode Island in 1986. I also worked at a prison as a teacher at the same time in Connecticut.
How did you end up going south to Baton Rouge?
While I was in Rhode Island the bishop for both Louisiana and Mississippi asked me to come down three times. The fourth time is when I decided to move. I was in Mississippi first where my son and daughter were born. Then I went to Louisiana where I have been the pastor at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge.
You are also currently teaching at LSU. How did that come about?
I had taught religion at the community college level, and when I came to Baton Rouge I saw an announcement in the paper that LSU was looking for an African American religion instructor. I interviewed in the spring of 2000, and next semester will be 22 years that I have been on LSU’s campus.
What do you teach?
I was in the religion department for awhile, and then the director of African American studies asked me to join him and that’s where I am now. I teach introduction to African American studies and introduction to the civil rights movement, and I also teach an education course.
You are a busy man, and there’s more we want to ask you. But getting back to your swimming, how did you come into Senior Games?
I swam recreationally once I got out of college, but I messed around and got away from it because I was raising a family. That was the beginning of starting to lose it. I had been active most of my life and then let myself go. I hit the wall in 2014. I went to my son’s graduation from the police academy, and when I looked back at the pictures I could see that I had a gut. So I went to the doctor and my cholesterol was off the charts. He said to me ‘If you don’t start exercising, I am going to have to put you on medication’ and I said, ‘I don’t think so Doc.’ He gave me six weeks to get my numbers down or I had to start taking medication.
I looked myself in the mirror and said, ‘You can do better than this.’ So I started swimming in the morning and in the afternoon at the LSU rec center. My cholesterol was 205 and after the six weeks it was 166 and I had lost 15 pounds. The nurse said, ‘I guess you are on medication’ and I answered, ‘Yeah, I’m swimming.’ You don’t give an athlete an ultimatum. My name means African Warrior. I’ve been fighting all my life, and I wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
When did you realize you wanted to swim competitively in Senior Games? I heard about the state games coming up, and I had a student named Kit Hanley who was on the LSU swim team. I asked her if she would help get me ready because I wanted to compete again. I went to the natatorium after her practice, and she would stay and work with me. I had a second student at the rec center who also offered advice.
I started swimming 10 laps at the university rec center and worked my way up to a mile and a half. Then I swam in my first Louisiana Senior Games in 2018. They had cancelled swimming in 2017, so I organized the games at the YMCA and we got to swim in 2018. I won the butterfly, IM and breaststroke and qualified for the National Senior Games in Albuquerque in 2019.
My son Herman III (we call him Osby so we would know who she was talking to) came with me to New Mexico, and I came in 22nd in the nation in breaststroke and IM, and 18th in the butterfly. Osby told me to up my game. He told me that I need to join masters swimming. I didn’t know if I could afford it or if I could keep up with them. I joined LSU Masters Swimming for about a year and got up at 5am to swim and train. I won four gold medals in my age group at the state games in 2019.
I’m now swimming for the team at Crawfish Aquatics here in town. I’ve always taught private lessons at Crawfish, but I swam at LSU because it was convenient. It was a bit of a dilemma – divided allegiance, you know – and I woke up one day and decided to do everything at Crawfish. Besides, because of the pandemic you had to reserve a lane at LSU and there might be three people in a lane. Coach Nan would have the guy open up the pool for me at four in the morning.
You’re on track to great things, Herman. What are your goals for the 2022 Games in Florida next May?
My goal for the next Nationals is to be in the top 15 or top 12 in all of my events. My ultimate goal is to be a national champion in 10 years. I will be 77 by that time.
One of the great things we heard you are doing is teaching swimming to underserved youth as part of your ministry. Tell us how you began doing this.
First of all, the reason why more African Americans don’t swim today is because of racism. We didn’t have access on many levels until recent history. I couldn’t have gone to LSU as an African American when I was growing up in the ‘60s, and back then people threw acid in some pools to keep black people out. I couldn’t have joined Bolles school, which is famous for having many Olympians.
When I was a teenager my friend drowned so it was always on my mind. Every summer my heart aches because I hear of African Americans drowning. In 2011, I heard that seven people had drowned in Shreveport and I said to myself, ‘That’s a shame. Somebody ought to do something about that.’ So the Spirit spoke to me and said, ‘You know how to swim, why don’t you do something about that?’
My mission in life is now to teach private swimming lessons for underserved people. I started the Dr. James Haines Swimming Ministry – it’s named after my swimming coach at Morehouse. My congregation serves 66 children. Ours is the only black swimming ministry in the state of Louisiana.
Do you have other community projects with swimming?
Yes, and it’s something very close to me. I wanted to swim to raise money for cancer to honor my wife Linda. She got diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014. She was in remission from 2015 to 2019 but it came back as stage four metastatic breast cancer. We thought we had beat it.
I worked with Coach Nan Fontenot at Crawfish Aquatics to organize a “Swim for Life” event and we raised about $7,000. Linda came out of the hospital to be at the event.
Linda passed recently, so next year, I am going to call it “Swim for Linda.” This year we raised about $10,000. After the last one, I got a call from the Patient Advocate Foundation, and they said because we raised so much money they named a scholarship after her for a student who is cancer survivor. The young lady who received the scholarship is a biomedical major.
Now they are doing do this scholarship annually, and I was invited to be on the board of the organization. I like that I get to help pick who gets the scholarship. Last year, we were swimming for Linda’s life, so now we are going to swim for Linda’s memory.
We’re proud of you, Herman. You must feel proud to honor her.
Yes. And since she’s been gone I still feel her presence in the pool. I pray to God before I swim, but when I’m in there and starting to lag I call out in my mind, “Help me, Angel Linda” and she helps me finish my swim strong.
It’s amazing to see how your life was shaped by just learning to swim, and you are doing great things to serve and help others.
My parents were my Godsend and I have dedicated this journey I’m on to them. I had no idea the impact that those swimming lessons would have on my life. They just told us we were taking lessons, and look where it has taken me.