Tribute to Black History Month: Olivia Jack
Whether it’s pushing yourself to be faster in the pool or inspiring other black athletes to raise their voices, Olivia Jack always led by example.
“It’s not necessarily about asking people to join me,” the senior Penn State swimmer said, “but hoping people see what I’m doing and want to follow along.”
Jack recently set two personal bests at the Big Ten Championships in Madison, Wisconsin, placing 11and in the 100 meters breaststroke with a time of 1:00.68, good for 11and-best in competition and sixth best in school history, and a score of 22.49 in the 50-meter freestyle. She was also part of a Nittany Lion 200 medley relay team that set a school record and NCAA B standard with a time of 1:36.79.
As she pushed and was pushed by her teammates, Jack also found ways to provide support for Black athletes in all sports and across the country during her four years at Penn State. She established the Penn State Black Student Athletes Association, which currently includes approximately 40 registered members of various Nittany Lion teams, as well as other student-athletes who attend organizational events including barbecues, game nights, and discussions on societal and campus issues.
“My hope is simply that the Black Student Athletes Association will be one big family, a place of support where freshman athletes know they are welcome at Penn State athletics, even if they may not see no faces that look like theirs,” she says. “They can meet other athletes on campus who they can talk about situations with or just hang out with, just to have that cultural connection within athletics.
“If we try to be as successful as possible as a school sportingly, I think it’s also important to support each other. I’m just trying to start within my cultural community. to make sure we have those family ties.”
Along with Emma Anderson, then a senior student at Niskayuna High School in upstate New York, Jack was also a driving force behind the Athletes for Equal Rights website, which launched in 2020. The site chronicles the black sports history as well as recent racial injustices and causes. Jack is one of more than two dozen black college athletes who share her personal story on the site, which she says “is really just a place for athletes to express their thoughts without worrying about their position in their team, if they will get NIL offers or scholarships.” The website also offers sports workouts with statistics that display racial disparities and inequalities in the United States.
“It was great to see so many people willing to share their stories so that black athletes entering college can see what we’ve been through and maybe learn from us, or for other people who are just watching. to see what we might have gone through that we don’t often talk about,” says Jack.
Jack credits her parents, Amy Wechter and Osborne Jack, with instilling in her a love of swimming and supporting her throughout her development with the sport. Her mother, who was living in Barbados at the time, swam in the ocean every morning while she was pregnant with Jack and put her in the water shortly after she was born.
A state breaststroke champion at Scotia-Glenville High School in Scotia, New York, Jack chose Penn State because she wanted academic challenges — she’s a marketing major and Spanish minor who’s a Schreyer scholar. – and wanted to be pushed in the same way in competition.
“I didn’t want to be the fastest swimmer on the team,” she says. “I didn’t want to be the slowest swimmer on the team.”
Jack says she tends to second-guess herself when it comes to swimming, but her teammates have helped remind her that she belongs at this level and keep her free before competitions; she recently resumed her high school habit of listening to music and dancing before races.
“At the end of the day, I will never remember the times when I swam,” she says. “I will always remember my teammates.”
Jack was inspired by Olympic gold medalist freestyle swimmer Simone Manuel and tennis legend Serena Williams for their feats and determination to be themselves, and by his younger sister, Tia, who “reminds me to do the things out of love and not because others expect me to.” If she had any advice for young athletes, it would be to learn from the lessons that have helped her.
“I hope I allow young black athletes to see me and realize that as someone who has struggled mentally in my sport and outside of my sport, it is okay to take a step back when you have it. need,” she says, “and OK to realize when you might need help with your sport, help with your studies, just generally it’s okay to ask for help and you don’t have no need to do everything on your plate alone.”
Jack hopes to swim for St. Vincent and the Grenadines at the 2024 Olympics, but she plans to graduate first and then enroll in a one-year masters in marketing program. She aspires to work in marketing in the fashion industry – preferably sustainable fashion or athletic fashion – and hopes to be as “involved in my communities as possible” wherever she finds herself. As usual, she intends to lead by example.
“Through my actions, asking people to be self-aware and realize that they could express their own opinions and situations more,” she says. “And create the conversations that need to happen about social issues in this country.”