Matt Maher: Alice Dearing leading generation of change in swimming

At first glance, Alice Dearing’s 19th-placed finish in the gruelling 10km open water swim at Tokyo 2020 might seem unremarkable.

Great Britain's Alice Dearing after finishing 19th in the Women's 10km Marathon Swimming race at Odaiba Marine Park on the twelfth day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan. Picture date: Wednesday August 4, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story OLYMPICS Swimming. Photo credit should read: Mike Egerton/PA Wire. ..RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to restrictions. Editorial use only, no commercial use without prior consent from rights holder..
Great Britain's Alice Dearing after finishing 19th in the Women's 10km Marathon Swimming race at Odaiba Marine Park on the twelfth day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan. Picture date: Wednesday August 4, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story OLYMPICS Swimming. Photo credit should read: Mike Egerton/PA Wire. ..RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to restrictions. Editorial use only, no commercial use without prior consent from rights holder..

Yet when the 24-year-old dived into the waters of Odaiba Bay last week, she made history as the first black woman to ever represent Great Britain in swimming at an Olympic Games.

It was a hugely significant moment, one which those governing swimming in the UK believe can accelerate change in a sport where people from ethnically diverse backgrounds have for a long time been under-represented.

That is certainly the hope at Langley Swimming Centre, the place where Dearing first learned to swim aged five and then competed for Oldbury Swimming Club.

“It’s huge,” explains Raj Singh, Oldbury’s head coach who trained with Dearing when they were both part of the club’s junior section.

“For people from ethnically diverse backgrounds to see someone like Alice getting to the Olympics, to be the first black woman to ever swim for GB. Hopefully it inspires more people to pick up the sport.”

Singh estimates around 30 per cent of Oldbury’s 200-plus members are from ethnic minority groups, a healthy increase on when he first joined the club nearly two decades ago. Yet in many other places, those figures are far lower.

Dearing has not shied away from her role as a trailblazer. In 2019, she co-founded the Black Swimming Association, an organisation which aims to break down the barriers which have seen people of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage precluded from the world of aquatics.

The BSA’s initial focus is on the black community. According to Swim England, 95 per cent of black adults and 80 per cent of black children do not swim, while black children are three times more likely to drown than white children. Those are astounding and frankly, frightening statistics. The most obvious first question is to ask why that is.

“The main reason is it is not a priority. If something is not a priority then you have issues,” says filmmaker Ed Accura, another BSA co-founder.

“The most important thing is we don’t see people from black communities involved (in swimming). That is why Alice’s achievement is so important.

“The more you see people who look like you, the more you believe you can do it yourself.”

Accura, aged 55, admits himself to having hid behind the stereotype that blacks people can’t swim for most of his life until being persuaded by his wife to learn at the same time as his daughter, Lolita.

He made a film about it, called Blacks Can’t Swim. Released in 2019, it had a big impact.

“It was supposed to be a throwaway film but when I released the trailer, things went mad,” he explains.

“I had close to 2,000 people contacting me in the first few weeks asking how they could watch it.

“People were saying they could relate to it. Some became aware of the issue for the first time, while others knew about the issue but found it so sensitive they could not talk about it.

“Most importantly, the film helped people start to have the conversation. We need to have those difficult conversations if we are going to get anywhere.”

The BSA recently unveiled its strategic plan, which includes assisting the authorities to bring about a 20 per cent increase in the number of black and Asian people working in swimming over the next three years.

In addition to removing systemic and institutional inequalities around the sport, there are also some racist myths and tropes to explode.

“I’ve heard swimming instructors say black people can’t swim because they have heavier bones,” says Accura. “We have to knock that on the head once and for all, do the research.”

Swim England has set up focus groups to look into the issue and gradually, across the sport, there is a sense things are beginning to change. At Rio 2016, the American Simone Manuel became the first black woman to win Olympic gold in the pool. Dearing is now another role model.

Still, there are hurdles. The decision of the International Swimming Federation (Fina) to reject swimming caps designed for natural black hair prior to Tokyo 2020 was a setback. On average, black women spend more than three times more than white women on hair care. When it comes to swimming, that is an issue.

“It sounds ludicrous but it can be really damaging to your self-image and confidence as chlorine wrecks hair,” Dearing says on the BSA website. “But it’s even harder for girls with thicker hair, which the majority of black girls have.”

The success of British swimmers at the Olympics creates an opportunity for change, one which should be magnified in the Midlands with the Commonwealth Games now less than 12 months away.

A short walk from Langley you will find the £60million aquatics centre in the final stages of construction. Slap bang in the middle of one of the most ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in the country. The chance to change the face of a sport would appear to be there.

“I think things are on the right track,” says Singh. “When I go to competitions now, I see black and Asian swimmers a lot more than when I was competing.

“I think the sport is becoming more accessible. Hopefully people will look at Alice and think: ‘I can do that too’.”

Top Stories

More from the Express & Star

UK & International News