ST. CLOUD – Suhan Mohamed has found a welcoming community in a surprising place.
Only two months ago, she and Apollo High School classmate Nimo Gohe didn't have a clue about how to swim. Now, the two Somali teens are making history, becoming the first Muslim girls to join the school's team and two of the first to swim competitively in the state.
"I don't think they understand what barriers they're breaking down in the community," said Alex Badger, Apollo's head coach.
As this central Minnesota city of 67,000 people has become increasingly diverse in recent years, its growing Somali population has frequently been the victim of anti-Muslim, racist incidents. But, Mohamed and Gohe say they've felt nothing but support at Apollo, emboldening them to become trailblazers.
"They didn't make us feel like we didn't know anything," Mohamed, 18, said of the swim team. "They were so nice to us."
Nearly half of the 1,400 students at Apollo are students of color. Of those, about 30 percent are Somali, which has prompted the school to hire more English language teachers like Badger.
But cultural norms and poverty (more than 60 percent of students qualify for free and reduced meals) have kept many girls from participating in athletics, leaving local teams struggling to fill rosters.
In recent years, Activities Director Dave Langerud has met with Muslim parents to encourage their daughters to join teams; a few girls took up soccer and track. "Of all the sports in the world, the last sport I'd think you'd get girls of Muslim faith is swimming," Langerud said, nodding to religious and cultural values that stress modesty.
Badger, 28, saw opportunity in the challenge.
Like her students, she's new to Minnesota, moving from the East Coast four years ago with her husband, a Twin Cities native. As Apollo's new head swimming coach, she set a goal to recruit girls who may have never considered swimming.
"If you're interested in putting your face in the water, welcome to the team," she told them. "This is about opening doors for all swimmers."
When the volleyball team made final roster cuts, Badger showed up to sell her sport to the girls who were cut. She touted swimming to English language learners, too. And on a hot July day, she had a free swim camp, driving a rented van around St. Cloud to pick up kids interested in participating.
Mohamed and Gohe got more than a swim lesson. They joined the team, made up of mostly white students who had been swimming for years. "I didn't see other Somali kids who swam," Mohamed said. "I was excited to start."
To accommodate their Muslim faith, Badger found black burkinis and full-body swimsuits for Mohamed and Gohe. Because the suits didn't comply with Minnesota State High School League regulations, she also got a rare waiver from the league.
When Mohamed and Gohe showed up for practice one day, they saw the rest of the team had changed their suits, too, trading the usual red, white and blue swimwear for mostly black suits that matched theirs.
"They're putting themselves out there and setting an example for other girls," team captain Rachel Warner said of Mohamed and Gohe. "And it takes so much courage."
At a home meet last week, "Welcome Willmar!" was scrawled on a white board as parents and siblings filled the bleachers at the Apollo pool.
The school doesn't have the fastest swim team in Minnesota, but it may be the loudest, as its swimmers raucously cheered from the beginning to the end of the two-hour meet.
As an announcer called out the 50-yard freestyle, Mohamed strapped on goggles and stepped up to the block in lane 8. The buzzer sounded.
As she dove in the water, Gohe and teammates leaned over the pool's edge, screaming "Go! Go! Go!" The swimmers reached the end of the pool, turned and headed back.
Despite the cheers, Mohamed finished last. Still, she was all smiles as she high-fived a swimmer from the opposing team.
The youngest of four children, Mohamed joined her family in St. Cloud from Somalia two years ago.
Each weekday, after classes and two-hour practices, she drives to Walmart to work for four hours as a cashier until 10:30 p.m. Then she gets up early for practice or to do homework, keeping mostly A's in preparation for college.
Apollo's swim team, made up of girls in grades 7-12, is small and fairly young. Unlike swimmers from more affluent cities, Badger said, many girls on the team, which hasn't won a meet in years, don't swim year-round. There are no tryouts or cuts.
"We take anyone and everyone," said junior Kaylie Stroeing, a team captain.
Hours after last week's meet ended and the school hallways turned dark, Mohamed, Gohe and their teammates dished out pastas from Crock-Pots in the cafeteria. It didn't matter to Badger that her team had lost — she's winning over new swimmers, already inspiring other Somali girls to join.
"If your goal is to just be the fastest possible program, maybe it's really hard to outreach and find new swimmers," Badger said. "But if your goal is to increase numbers and be more inclusive, it absolutely made sense for me to reach out to these girls."
Langerud, the activities director, said he's amazed by what Mohamed and Gohe have done.
"I actually cried when they jumped in the water,'' he said. "They're going to be the biggest advocates for other kids. They're going to change the world."