Picks and Pans Review: Making Waves with ...
Back in 1978, Jim Ellis—the founder of the country's first nationally competitive African-American swim team—took his group of young swimmers behind the stands at a meet to eavesdrop on a fan of the opposing squad. "A dad had pulled his son to the side, and said, 'Don't let those black kids beat you,'" says Ellis, 59. "I wanted my kids to understand what we were into."
Such moments of racism only fueled Ellis's desire to win. Now his story is in theaters as Pride, starring Terrence Howard as the gruff but tender coach. A high-school math teacher who swam at historically black Cheyney University, the Pittsburgh-born Ellis started coaching at a Philadelphia rec center in 1972. Working with kids across the city—including those from low-income families living in the toughest neighborhoods—he went on to create a dynasty: His team has racked up championships, held national records in the breaststroke and 200-meter medley relay, and sent alumni to the Olympic trials and on scholarship to elite colleges such as Dartmouth and Princeton. "He is passionate about swimming and about African-Americans succeeding," says parent Michael Major Sr., whose daughters both swam for Ellis.
No wonder Howard—who admires Ellis's "refusal to give up hope"—and others see him as a hero. But it's the praise of swimmers like Franke Thompson, 14, that matters most. "Jim," he says, "wants us to go far."