Racism and homophobia are all too common in the swimming pool

I once overheard a swimming teacher spout the racist myth that ‘Black people can’t float because they’ve got heavier bones.’

This ignorant misconception has been repeated to me several times, in jokes from my school mates and in genuine questions posed by adults and children both that I’ve taught swimming and those that have been curious about my job role.

While it is always something that I refute, the number of times I have had to rubbish this claim shows how ingrained this fallacy remains. 

But it’s not just racism that makes waves in and out of the pool; homophobia often rears its ugly head, too.

I once witnessed a swimming teacher imply that children were effeminate for being anxious about getting in the water – calling them ‘sissies’. Though myself and a few teachers called it out, the gravity of language was not recognised nor appreciated, despite terms such as this having a lasting effect on the one at the receiving end.

As a mixed-race, Black, gay avid swimmer and longtime swimming teacher, it breaks my heart that this prejudice continues to be a sad reality of the sport.

I’ve always been known as the water baby in my family. I swam regularly throughout my childhood, becoming a lifeguard when I was 17 and eventually a swim teacher. The sport means a great deal to me but, above all, it means maintaining a connection to my body and senses while disconnecting from the everyday.

Swimming requires a great deal of vulnerability in a variety of ways – from simply having to strip down to a swimming costume in front of others, to recognising how the body moves in a very different way to that on land, and it is this vulnerability that I relish. 

To me, the benefits of swimming are immeasurable, both physically and mentally. Its low-impact nature means that it can be enjoyed by a much wider age range than other disciplines. Swimming is also a fundamental life skill and it is vital that everybody gets an equal opportunity to learn.

This is why I feel awful that people are missing out on this when they tell me about their previous traumatic experiences of trying to learn to swim.

As a swimming teacher for adults, I’m often approached by beginners who haven’t swam since childhood. There are various reasons for this, but it’s often attributable to past experiences of not being made to feel comfortable in the pool.

A very common one is that, for many non or weak swimmers, their first experience was school swimming lessons. I’ve heard several stories of children being chucked into the deep end by a teacher and expected to swim to the other side. 

As someone committed to providing an inclusive and safe environment for those that swim with me, these experiences undoubtedly make me both upset and dismayed. I have a real sense that people are being failed at the school swimming level, and ultimately it motivates me towards continuing to work in making the pool a more inclusive space. 

It’s very often the case that people have turned to me because they specifically want to be taught by a Black or LGBTQ+ person. This may seem inconsequential to some, but many people search for that deeper level of understanding that has often been lacking in their previous experiences. I’ve found teaching one-to-one lessons has really helped many overcome their anxieties.

I also get a lot of questions regarding issues such as hair and skin care that are specific to or amplified for people of colour. 

Very often, hair products marketed for regular swimmers aren’t designed with ethnic minorities in mind. One example are swimming caps: although they are marketed as one-size-fits all, many won’t fit those who have larger, thicker hair or styles such as locs and braids.

While there is a growing market for larger caps, these are often more expensive and usually aren’t available for purchase at pools. 

Chlorine shampoo is often far too drying for coarser hair types and can’t be used. What I know now is that it’s important to follow a hair routine that’s focused on hydration and moisturising, but as a young swimmer I knew no one else with hair like mine and had no one to turn to. 

Consciously or not, we often promote one idea of what a swimmer should be, which doesn’t stray far away from a Michael Phelps-type body – white, lean and muscular. 

This is somewhat understandable, given swimming’s representation at the elite level. In England, out of the 73,000 competitive swimmers registered with Swim England, less than 1% identify as Black or mixed-race. We need to ask ourselves why this is the case and what can be done to change it.

In order to encourage participation from as many people as possible, the sport needs to celebrate all the bodies and identities that enter the water. Between May 2018 and 2019, over 80% of Black adults did not participate in swimming. Figures from a survey taken by Sport England show that 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children do not go swimming at all. 

Growing up, I never felt celebrated – let alone represented. I faced many issues due to my identity that were either amplified or left unresolved as there was no one like me, both in the pool and on the sidelines.

2020 saw a big boom in open water and wild swimming, with the National Open Water Coaching Association reporting 323% increase in participation as pools were closed during lockdown, which shows how many people are keen to improve their fitness and mental health by swimming. 

I volunteer for the Black Swimming Association and Pride in Water, which work to improve participation rates and break down the barriers for ethnic minorities and members of the LGBTQ+ community.

It’s encouraging to see that there is definitely a growing movement towards increasing diversity in swimming, and many grassroots organisations are becoming conscious of representation amongst their members.

Campaigns like Rainbow Laces have also been successful in encouraging better LGBTQ+ acceptance in swimming. But we still need to build on this progress and conduct more research to understand these issues fully. This means creating targeted programmes that reach the demographics least likely to participate.

The swimming world – particularly National Governing Bodies such as Swim England and British Swimming and sport charities that have the ability to implement change – need to openly recognise different intersections in society. Among those at the higher level, there is very limited research and therefore limited understanding as to what the next steps should be and the barriers members of the LGBTQ+ and Black community face in the pool environment.

I would love to see targeted programmes for groups that don’t typically swim, led by respective members of those communities.

Above all, what needs to happen is a renewed focus on the quality and provision of school swimming lessons. For many people underrepresented in the sport, school lessons are their only opportunity to learn – though the quality of lessons depends on area, local leisure centre provisions, the teaching staff and the willingness of the school to actively encourage inclusivity. 

Only then will we make a real splash when it comes to making sure everyone feels welcome in the water.

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