HOLLAND – Tabahn Afrik’s first experience with swimming could have been his last.
Because his family lives in Michigan, which is nearly surrounded by large bodies of water, Afrik’s parents — Robyn and Taiyoh — thought it would be good for the eldest of their three children to learn to swim when he was 5.
And the adventure began.
“My story is a little different than most swimmers,” Afrik said. “Mine is more along the lines of it was a fortunate mistake. One of the most iconic moments in our family is the first day of swim practice.”
Instead of a learn-to-swim class, the Afriks accidentally signed him up for a USA competitive swim team.
“I got in the water, and these people were flying by me,” Afrik said. “I had no idea what I was doing. I wondered why are they teaching me how to race? I should be learning how to swim.”
Tabahn Afrik is the top rated swimmer in the state, winning the 100 and 200 freestyle state titles last season. He has signed to swim at Notre Dame next year.
Afrik was hanging onto the lane line for dear life when his father came to the side of the pool.
“I love my dad, he’s a great guy, he’s the one who’s pushed me to where I am today,” Afrik said. “He goes: ‘Tabahn, if you don’t stop grabbing the lane line or the wall, you’re going to have to walk home.’
“Right then and there I figured out, I better learn quick.”
Afrik is a quick study in everything. He is an honor student with an unweighted 3.6 grade-point average who scored an excellent 32 on the ACT and signed to swim at Notre Dame.
And he is hoping to finish his Holland West Ottawa High career this weekend by repeating as a Division 1 state champion in two individual events and maybe set a record or two.
Afrik is the top-ranked swimmer in the state, and he is easy to pick out at a meet — and not just because he is the fastest guy in the pool.
“I’m a mixed kid,” he said, laughing.
His father, Taiyoh, is from Sierra Leone in Africa; his mother, Robin, is Korean. The two met at Valparaiso, where they competed in track.
Over the years, Afrik has heard every remark imaginable about his skin color and how it relates to swimming, a sport that rarely sees a person of color.
“Kids can be jerks; kids are kids,” he said with a shrug. “My skin color has come into many conversations, like: ‘He’s only good because he’s black.’ Hey, we’re not even in football. There’s some comedy behind the way some people think the way they do. But it’s never been a problem to the point that it’s bogging me down or preventing me to be the best that I can.”
Nothing has stopped Afrik on his way to becoming one of the nation’s best swimmers. He loved swimming — well, at least he did once he actually learned how to swim.
The driving force behind Afrik’s career has been his father, who tried to guide him through the ups and downs of competitive sports.
“Isn’t that what dads do?” Taiyoh asked. “You sense talent and then you try to make sure you motivate them without it being overbearing. Both my wife and I were in sports, and we both enjoyed it. I enjoyed it because I wanted to do it, not because my parents wanted me to do it.”
While Afrik excelled at the sport at a young age, there was a time when swimming became drudgery and he wanted to quit. His father backed his decision to give up on the sport.
“We did have a point where I think he was 10 years old and he felt like there was too much pressure,” Taiyoh said, “and he felt like it was coming from me instead of from him, at least from his perspective.”
While he stepped away from the sport, Afrik held no animosity toward his father.
“My dad is one of the people that I look up to, and he is one of the people I aspire to be when I get a little bit older,” Afrik said. “The amount of care that he has for his kids, I have yet to see it in another human being. He would give us the world if he could.”
Afrik’s problem was with the dedication needed for the sport.
“There are very few sports harder than swimming,” Afrik said. “It’s one thing to be able to run, it’s one thing to lift heavy weights. It’s another thing to have the mental discipline to wake up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning every other day, jump in a pool that’s 60 degrees and swim until noon. It’s discipline — that’s all the sport is.”
After taking a season off, Afrik wanted back in, but first he had to sell it to his father.
His parents allowed him to rejoin the local swim team with the understanding that he must quit if it stopped being fun.
“You push them to stick with it and at some point it feels like you’re pushing them for your reasons, instead of their reasons, and it becomes a crossroads where you have to have them own it, and that’s one of the things we talk about in our family,” Taiyoh said. “We believe that ownership is very important. The more you own it, the more committed you are.”
To test his commitment, the Afriks had a yearly sit-down at which they would ask their son if the sport was still fun.
“I just realized,” his father said, “we haven’t been asking for two years.”
Afrik won the 100 and 200 freestyle titles last season when he also set the Division 1 record in the 50 free from a relay race. He also visited Virginia, USC and Michigan, and was one of the most sought-after swimmers in the country.
“It’s a combination of both efficiency and power,” West Ottawa coach Steve Bowyers said. “A lot of times you get a lot of big, strong kids that just don’t move well in the water. And then you get a lot of kids that move well in the water, but they don’t have the strength. He has a very unique combination of those two. He has a great kick, which definitely helps, and he has good starts and turns.”
In addition to being an exceptional student, Afrik is president of the youth advisory council and part of the broadcasting and journalism team.
“He challenges himself both academically and athletically, so he gets the job done in the classroom as well,” Bowyers said. “He’s a phenomenal young man.”
Because he has been competing at the national level for years, Afrik assumed high school swimming might be a step down in competition, but he learned that is not true, especially in Division 1.
That is why this weekend is so important to him.
“It’s one thing to swim for a USA program and represent a team, and it’s another thing to swim for a high school program and represent an entire district, the entire school,” Afrik said. “Standing up on the first-place podium with a West Ottawa emblem on your chest, there’s a sense of pride that comes with it. It feels great, it really does. It’s definitely a milestone in my career.”
Afrik is hoping for a few more milestones this weekend, and is prepared for a few remarks about his color and how he isn’t even supposed to know how to swim.
“I’ve heard that one,” he said, shaking his head. “Or some say the reason I can swim is because I have the Asian in me. You can’t win.
“Black people can’t swim? OK, watch me swim. I’ll show you we can swim.”
Where: Division 1 — Eastern Michigan, Division 2 — Holland Aquatic Center, Division 3 — Oakland University.
Schedule: Today — preliminaries,
Saturday — finals.
Schedule: Today — team finals, 2 p.m.; Saturday — individual finals, noon.