Over generations, as many blacks were kept out of the water, some developed a fear, says Carol Irwin, a health sports sciences professor in Memphis, Tennessee, who researched the issue for USA Swimming. Many were too afraid to let their children learn to swim.
The people Irwin interviewed for her research cited other reasons as well for not getting wet.
Some said they got no encouragement from their parents or other elders in the family. Or that it was a matter of not getting their hair wet.
Some people complained that the chemicals in swimming pools, as well as the salt in the ocean, made their skin dry and ashen.
Others cited difficulty in accessing public pools or having no money to pay for swim classes, a common problem Butts is trying to combat in Ohio.
A ticket out
Muhammad says he got lucky when his mother, Jessica, got a job as a locker-room attendant at a pool in a public housing project in downtown Atlanta.
She collected dirty clothes and put them in baskets. She was one step up from a janitor.
Muhammad was 7 then and often sat and watched his mother work. One day he got into the pool.
He learned to swim and later became a lifeguard and raced with the Dolphins, Atlanta's first inner-city team. By the time he neared graduation, Stanford University in California offered him a full swimming scholarship.
Swimming erased his fears and gave him confidence. In the water, he felt the whole world was his.
"Think about it," he says. "It's a daunting experience for a child who can't swim to get into the water. To overcome that is huge. There's nothing else that's as binary as live or die."
Getting wet, learning life
All the kids at the Adamsville Natatorium know Muhammad --- the trailblazer in the water. They need a hero like him, Wilcox says. In the YMCA-funded research she conducted for USA Swimming, people told her that it would take more than an informational flyer to put their kids in the water.
They wanted an advocate, someone they could trust. This was a matter of life and death, after all. Jackson, the coach, says he wants to give his students a head start in life, just as he did for Muhammad.
Learning to swim is so much more than being able to move in the water, he says. It's about self-esteem, healthy eating, building good character and discipline --- it takes a lot of will power to swim 335 yards three days a week.
The students' mothers say they've noticed big changes. There's a high correlation, they say, between their children's swimming skills and how they perform in the classroom.
Several of the kids attend elite, private schools in Atlanta such as The Paideia School and The Westminster Schools. Their moms hope they, like Muhammad, will find their way to a reputable university, whether through their strokes in the water or their grades in the classroom.
"The coaches really care here," says Michelle Brown, whose daughters, Brianna, 13, and Alexis, 9, are expert swimmers.
"I never learned how to swim," she says. "But I always had this fear my kids might drown."
On this evening, half the moms who are waiting don't know how to swim.
They sit and laugh and joke --- they're part of a mom's club that's formed from all the hours they spend together. They don't mind giving up hours in their long days.
"It's worth it," they say.
Melissa Jones brings her daughter Ariel, 14, who began swimming when she was 6. Jones' primary goal was fitness. Ariel took to the water and now races at swim meets with the Dolphins.
Jones says the mothers discuss how to promote Adamsville's swimming program so that many more kids will take advantage.