How triathlete Latifah Lowery conquered her fear of water

Naples' Latifah Lowery has become a competitive triathlete, a standout swimmer and a beacon of hope for Black women in the sport.

BY June 1, 2023
Triathlete Latifah Lowery
Latifah’s first triathlon was in 2021—one year after she learned to swim. She’s set to compete in the USA Triathlon Nationals in August. “Yes, you can start late, you can be a mom, you can be someone who looks different than 99 percent of the sport, and still rise,” she says. (Photo By Brian Tietz)

For triathlete Latifah Lowery, being in the water is like being in another world. She loves the freedom, wonder and uncertainty of swimming. “I feel like I’m defying gravity,” she says. “I feel like I’m flying.” 

If you would have asked Latifah—who up until adulthood did not know how to swim—if she ever saw herself as a triathlete, the answer would have been a resounding ‘No.’ After all, competitions require anywhere from a 0.5-mile to a 2.4-mile swim. “Growing up, we were never allowed to be around deep water. We were told if the water touches your knees, that’s when you stop,” the 33-year-old Naples-based athlete says.   

The reason: fear. For Latifah Lowery, water was synonymous with danger, a belief instilled in her by her mother, who was taught the same principle by her mother. This deeply embedded generational fear is not uncommon among the larger Black community. Perhaps because for a great deal of the 20th century, Black people were not granted access to public or private pools.  “During segregation periods, [Black] people did try to swim and go to pools, but they were hated. There were instances where they would get kicked out. People would fight them and throw acid in the water,” Latifah says. 

Despite this history, Latifah Lowery has always been drawn to the water. She’d often sit and stare at the ocean, mesmerized by its vastness. In 2017, she was introduced to triathlons when she went to support her friend and former pro triathlete Sian Welch at that year’s Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, HI. “When I saw my [first race], I thought everyone looked so good,” she says. “I was like ‘Wow, I want to try this sport.’”

In 2020, three months after giving birth, Latifah began her quest to become a triathlete. To overcome her fear of swimming, she joined a masters swim club, which required a 25-meter swim test. Her first moments in the water left much to be desired. “I couldn’t swim one lap,” says Latifah Lowery, who only managed to doggy paddle. As her limbs grew tired, she panicked. But her fight-or-flight response kicked in, and she knew that no matter what, she had to make it to the other end. It took Latifah about a month to go from doggy paddling to learning a stroke. And, she still had to master biking and tap back into her running skills from her high school track days.

On January 10, 2021—a day before her son turned 1—she waded into the water at the Sarasota-Bradenton Triathlon Festival. When she finished, she felt like she could do anything. “It was a sense of accomplishment that I’ve never felt,” she says. “Showing yes, you can start late, you can be a mom, you can be someone who looks different than 99 percent of the sport, and still rise.”

After completing about 20 triathlons in two years, Latifah has gone from being afraid of the water to being an impressive swimmer in races, making it to the podium on more than one occasion—all thanks to her work ethic. Each day, Latifah works on two of the three triathlon disciplines for 2.5 to 3 hours. She balances her training with twice-weekly strength sessions, yoga, foam rolling and sound baths for a dose of spiritual healing. Michellie Jones, an Olympic silver medalist and Ironman world champion, is her coach.

Latifah regrets to see she’s still one of the few Black women in the sport, but she wants to change that and be a beacon for others. “Being a part of a shift this big is the most important thing I’ve ever been a part of,” she says. “I love being able to bring such an essential skill as swimming to people who may not have it and then bringing awareness to this beautiful, life-changing sport.”

She wants to ensure that those who come after her aren’t stuck in the shallow end, starting with her 3-year-old son, Apollo, who Latifah introduced to the water when he was 6 months old. “That was important to me because of all of the fear I experienced and the insecurities of not being comfortable in the water. I just never wanted that for him,” she says. 

She’s also gotten her mom to embrace the water, getting her into swim lessons. And though her mom remains jumpy around the water, and her grandmother has yet to see her swim, Latifah’s encouraged to know her mom now knows how to float. “I realized how much of a life-saving skill that is that everyone should know,” Latifah says.

As she continues to help her family become more comfortable in the water, she’s also poised to take her passion to a professional level. Her next big race is the USA Triathlon Nationals in Milwaukee, in August. The competition is a qualifier for the World Championships. “I’ve found my calling,” she says. “I’m here to bring the awareness needed. I’m here to be the example. I’m here because I’m supposed to be here.”   

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