Four months have gone by since Olivia Jack last swam for Penn State, though her strongest performance yet may be due to time away from McCoy Natatorium.
The rising junior and Glenville, New York, native has assisted incoming Niskayuna High School (N.Y.) senior Emma Anderson to kickstart the website "Athletes for Equal Rights."
Inspired by the “I Run with Maud” challenge following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the website was launched in early June and aims to bring attention to the inequalities minorities face in their everyday lives through physical activity.
“They were pretty quickly mobilized and I’m wildly impressed with how comprehensive it is and how quickly they were able to jump on this and use that website for good,” Penn State assistant coach Matt Hurst said. “It’s really, really powerful to see. Really impactful.”
Just two weeks old, the website features daily workouts with unique repetition quantities based on racial inequality statistics. In addition to workouts, racial inequality stories from college and high school athletes give context and meaning to the project.
“I think a statistic itself isn’t super powerful to look at because that just doesn’t affect people the way that personal stories do,” Anderson said of matching anecdotes to numbers. “All of these stories are very personal and definitely put a face to the statistic.”
Jack collaborated with Anderson on the website after coronavirus concerns kept the swimmer away from racial injustice protests in New York City.
While the two have never met face-to-face, Jack’s mother heard from a co-worker about a high school soccer player who was in the early stages of a website specifically for athletes and connected the pair.
Once Jack was put in contact with Anderson and learned the website would grant athletes a voice about racial inequality, she was sold.
“It’s giving Black athletes an opportunity to let people hear what they have to say, because sometimes, we don’t always have the chance to do that,” Jack said.
As the only Black student-athlete on Penn State’s swimming and diving team, Jack has seen firsthand the impacts of racial inequality.
Racial stereotypes and insensitive questions have followed Jack the entirety of her career, and Jack feared she was growing numb to such environments.
“I’ve been swimming competitively since I was seven years old, and even when I wasn’t in college, there were probably a total of maybe two or three other Black swimmers in my area,” Jack said. “I was kind of used to being the only Black person or one of the few Black people in my sport.”
While Anderson manages the website, Jack has attracted Penn State athletes among others to share difficult personal stories like Jack’s of racial isolation in a predominantly white sport. Penn State football player Aeneas Hawkins and track and field’s Sincere Rhea are among those to elaborate on their life experiences and provide faces to workouts and statistics.
Though alone from a demographic perspective, Jack has the full support of her team and coaches. Team-wide Zoom calls have featured open dialogue about the current political climate, and Hurst noted that Jack is often at the forefront of these conversations.
“She’s an exceptional individual,” Hurst said. “She’s a phenomenal young woman and we’re excited to see what she can continue to do with this [website] and we’re going to support her in any and every way we can.”
While the website has proven impactful in the Capital District of New York and at Penn State, Anderson believes her and Jack’s mission will not be complete until inequalities across all levels of society no longer exist.
Anderson envisions a future for Athletes for Equal Rights that branches into different levels of society.
“We could go into other areas of inequality that isn’t just strictly Black Lives Matter and racial inequality,” Anderson said. “Whether it be gender inequality or LGBTQ, we want to use the platform that we’re trying to create to promote education about these inequalities.”
With exercise, statistics and testimonials as the key components, Jack hopes she and Anderson’s dream can be achieved through this venture.
“The whole point of the website is the education side of it,” Jack said. “At the end of the day, without knowing exactly what’s going on, you won’t really know what has to be fixed.”