“Black people can’t swim, they are too heavy, and it’s not a sport for us.”
Alice Dearing, one of Britain’s best open water swimmers, is part of a campaign challenging that myth both in and out of the water.
The 22-year-old is on target to become the first black woman to represent Great Britain in swimming at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in July.
Away from her Olympic dream, Dearing has an even bigger challenge to face as the lead ambassador for the Black Swimming Association (BSA), a charity which has been launched to encourage more black people to swim.
Dearing knows there are still considerable issues to overcome.
According to swimming’s governing body Swim England, 95% of black adults and 80% of black children in England do not swim, while the last recorded data from 2018 shows that less than 1% of registered competitive swimmers with Swim England identify as black or mixed race.
The alarming effect from those statistics is that the risk of drowning is higher among ethnic minority communities.
“We have to make people aware of the importance of swimming and not just fun – it can save your life,” Dearing told BBC East Midlands Today.
“I am a big believer in representation. I don’t think you can be something that you can’t see. People won’t naturally take up swimming if they can’t see someone who naturally looks like them – especially for little black girls and boys.
“I don’t see why they would want to get in the water when they can see basketball players and footballers at a very high level and they look at swimming and see a very white population? They will naturally think ‘that is probably not the sport for me’.
“But we don’t sink. It’s doable with the hair! It isn’t easy managing my hair day to day. But if I can do it at the extreme end of the sport, everyone can. Blacks can swim.
“The toughest people to convince are black people and the BAME community. A lot of the resistance that I have had has been from black women online. It will take a while to change the cultural mindset. We are realistic on this and are starting with small numbers. It is building that each year.”
The drive to increase participation, inclusion and diversity involves not only changing attitudes, but providing financial support and helping organise swimming lessons and the BSA has backing from major swimming organisations including Swim England and the Swimming Teachers’ Association.
Part of the plan is to design projects and programmes suited to the unique aquatic needs of BAME communities which will be hosted in regions with the highest Afro-Caribbean populations in the UK including London, Birmingham, Manchester and West Yorkshire.
BSA co-founder Danielle Obe said: “Regardless of gender, age or ethnicity, swimming is an important and essential life skill that everyone should have. One of the key objectives of the BSA is to tackle aquaphobia and get adults especially to take that first step into the water as part of our swim clinics.”
Dearing is just the second black swimmer to represent Great Britain at international level, following in the slipstream of Achieng Ajulu-Bushell. Dearing’s journey has not been an easy one.
“I am from Birmingham which is a very racially diverse area so the majority of clubs I went to, there was at least one other BAME person,” Dearing explained.
“But when I went to open meets that got diluted and I would literally be the only person of colour in my event.
“I didn’t really think about it, but only on reflection I realised how different I looked because I would just see myself as a swimmer, not as a black swimmer. But the way I look at myself is not the way other people perceive me.
“That is kind of expected because it is a very white sport and I am trying to help change that. I didn’t want to make myself a victim. As soon as you start thinking of yourself as a victim then that is what you become. I am not a victim in any of this, I am just trying to make a change.”
‘Racism could have stopped me swimming’
Tackling ingrained underrepresentation is one thing, dealing with blatant racism is another matter entirely. It is something Dearing has experienced first hand and is desperately striving to ensure is stamped out.
Dearing was subjected to racist abuse as a 17-year-old, overhearing a coach refer to her as the “skinny n-word” to another swimmer.
“I tried not to think about it too much at the time and let it wash over me,” she explained. “But the more I thought about it, it was not ok and it could have really stopped me swimming.
“I want to try to help to stop some of the issues I have been through.
“I am not seeking publicity, but I couldn’t retire from swimming and sit back and look at the current landscape. There is no time like the present and am happy to help champion it.
“I like the idea I can inspire even one person to get in the water. That is the main thing because one might become 10 and 10 might become a hundred.”
First published 02.03.20: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/swimming/51664922