Swim coaches Joseph Hancock ’02 and Mauricio Ponce ’10: competitors and colleagues both in and out of the water
Joseph Hancock ’02 (left) and Mauricio Ponce ’10 (right) defy stereotypes. Both men love to swim, and both coach the sport. Both are also people of color in a world not always associated with African Americans and Latinos.
Hancock, who is both of the above, and Ponce, whose parents are from El Salvador and Venezuela, serve as role models for young people of color to test the waters.
In addition to coaching, both men recently took part in the Escape from Alcatraz swim, and both finished in the top 10 in their age groups.
Hancock, who directs the Boys & Girls Club’s Aquatics Program at the Don Fisher Clubhouse in the Western Addition, noted the reasons why, historically, African Americans had a negative association with swimming.
“The irony is that most Africans are tremendous swimmers,” he said. “The act of enslaving men and women and putting them on boats in shackles to carry them over water was just the start. Later, once slaves arrived in America, they were subject to all sorts of punishments, including public drownings, which also happened in Africa when slave handlers wanted to scare slaves into not escaping. Then, during the Civil Rights movement, police turned firehoses on demonstrators and barred blacks from public pools.”
Hancock coaches a team comprising 10 percent African American youth, and he sees an even higher percentage using the clubhouse pool. He encourages all students, including people of color, to learn to swim as a life-saving tool before venturing into the competitive side of swimming.
As a child, Hancock learned how to swim at Balboa Pool and then started competing through the Hamilton Recreation Center before coming to SI. He was inspired both by his father and by a coach, Bob Atkins, who was African American. “Thanks to them, I saw swimming as a sport that included people like me,” he noted. “It’s the same way now for kids of color when they see people like Mauricio and me serve as coaches. It’s vital that their teachers resemble them.”
Swimming also taught Hancock the value of pushing himself to his limits. “I also learned how to allow myself how to be pushed. It’s a great workout. There’s something different about going to the pool. I could be absolutely exhausted after a swim and still feel as if I could break through walls.”
By the time Hancock got to SI, he took a brief break from swimming to play basketball and football before going to Norfolk State University in Virginia — an historically black college — to study broadcast journalism. There, he returned to the water by starting a swim club and coaching aquatics at the nearby Booker T. Washington High School.
He also served as a cameraman for a local CBS affiliate before returning to the Bay Area to work for a brokerage firm. He returned to the South in 2010, this time to Atlanta, where he started his own business teaching swimming and coaching summer leagues.
In 2014, he moved back to the San Francisco to take the job with the Boys & Girls Club, where he touts the value of swimming. “It’s a great cardio workout and a tool that can save a life. You can swim all your life, unlike with other sports. And it’s a sport that allows you to think while you do it. You need to be strategic to pace yourself in order to win a race.”
Hancock met Ponce for the first time when the two men were coaching against each other. Ponce leads two teams — the Fog City Hammerheads, which swims at SI’s pool, and the Daly City Dolphins, which trains at Giammona Pool at Westmoor High School.
With both teams, Ponce works with swimmers ranging in age from 6 to 18, and he races on his own through the South End Rowing Club, which organizes the Alcatraz swim. After meeting Hancock, Ponce swam with him for the Alcatraz crossing. “Being in the open water is more liberating than swimming in a pool,” Ponce noted. Both men prefer the colder salt water to the chlorinated water of a swimming pool, and both like being out in nature communing with sea life.
Ponce began coaching club swimming after graduating from SI and began racing through the South End Rowing Club. He then spent two years coaching for SI’s swim team but left the program to pursue graduate studies at USF. A sociology major, he went on to earn his master’s degree in counseling and now serves as a school counselor at All Souls School in South San Francisco.
“I have the same passion for counseling as I have for coaching swimming,” Ponce said. “In both, I try to bring out the best in students, help them realize their potential and lead them to find out for themselves just what they are capable of doing.”
Ponce first learned to swim through the YMCA, but he didn’t love races. His four years swimming at SI made him a fan and helped him slim down. “My teammates were my brothers. With them, I saw that swimming can be both an individual and a team sport. When a team clicks, it’s like all the ingredients of a recipe coming together.”
He also competes in triathlons around the Bay Area to emphasize multi-disciplined training for his athletes and to promote “a triathlete culture for young athletes of color.”
Both Hancock and Ponce are friends away from the pool and when their teams compete against each other. “We both believe in healthy competition,” said Hancock. “All of our athletes improve when they compete against one another. For me, it’s great to hang out with a fellow Wildcat at these meets and afterwards, and I thank Mauricio for helping me decide to do the Alcatraz swim.”
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