Team GB’s trailblazing swimmer breaking barriers in and outside the pool
When Alice Dearing fell in love with the water at her local club in Birmingham at the age of five, she couldn’t have imagined that she was about to embark on a journey that would see her vying to become the first Black female swimmer to represent Team Great Britain at the Olympics.
The 23-year-old’s journey is far from over but she has already negotiated a number of hurdles to reach this point, overcoming racism to star as only the second Black woman to compete for Britain after Achieng Ajulu-Bushell in 2010.
Dearing’s determination to get more Black people involved in the water has seen her partner with Soul Cap to encourage future swimmers to not see their Afro hair as a potential barrier to success. She has also been a part of an inspiring group of people who turned tragedy into opportunity, creating the Black Swimming Association (BSA) charity which has become a necessary and powerful voice in the aquatic world.
Dearing’s attention to detail has even seen her mute the word “Olympics” from her Twitter timeline as she attempts to stay focused amid speculation of further coronavirus-enforced delays to the Games.
History beckons for Dearing, but she wants to be remembered for more than her skin colour.
“It is similar to what Idris Elba said about not wanting to be the first Black James Bond,” she tells ESPN. “We’re more than just our skin colour. I don’t think Black people want to be remembered as just Black people at the end of the day.
“We want to be remembered for our achievements and what we bring to the world instead of: ‘Oh they were Black and they did this.’ It should be: ‘I did this, and I also happen to be Black.’ But with swimming, it’s obviously more controversial and more of an issue because of the stereotypes and racism which Black people face in swimming.”
She has become one of the best marathon swimmers in the world and is relishing the spotlight as her Olympic qualifier on May 29-30 edges closer.
“I feel like I’ve really grown into it and the prospect of potentially being the first Black woman for Britain is something that really excites me,” she says. “Someone has to do it first and I hope it can be me, we’ll see.”
Dearing has already achieved so much in life. From becoming World Junior Champion in 2016 to studying for a Masters degree in Social Media & Political Communication throughout her road to the Olympics.
Her story is one of hard work, dedication, love for her craft and a desire to break barriers for the future generation.
Dearing credits her Ghanaian mother for encouraging her not to find it strange to see Black children excelling in the pool. However, this did not prevent others from making comments.
“People used to approach my mum and go: ‘Oh, I didn’t expect Alice Dearing to look like that,'” she recalls. “And honestly, at the time I thought it was because I was small, but then you think nine-year-old girls are meant to be small, right?”
Dearing also experienced racism. “A coach who I don’t know, never spoke to, called me a skinny N-word to another swimmer and I think I was 17 at the time and I didn’t really know how to handle it to be honest,” she says. “I just kind of buried it and just put it to one side.
“We reported it but I didn’t hear much of it until I had a choice to either leave it or report it to the police and I decided to leave it. I just didn’t want to hear any more of it. It’s a vile thing to happen to somebody and I didn’t want it to take any more time or effort away from my life.”
She also remembers comments from other swimmers but is thankful those experiences didn’t have a negative impact, but she recognises similar incidents could be happening to other Black children and could easily turn them away from the pool: “I always try to say it’s more about educating rather than confronting and debating in a sense, because quite often all these viewpoints are based in ignorance from racist systems which have been in our society for generations.
“So, we just need to break down those understandings and start to educate people, but then again that at the same time, I shouldn’t be the one to educate everybody.”
Racism is just one of many reasons why the Black community has been put off from swimming but another understated factor is the importance of hair maintenance. Dearing recently collaborated with swimming brand Soul Cap, who design caps that protect people with thick and curly hair from the water.
“I’m so proud of my Afro hair, I want to protect it as much as possible and it’s no secret that chlorine water is incredibly damaging to hair,” she explains.
“It is another reason why Black people, especially Black women, are so hesitant to get in the water. It’s always difficult because it sounds so frivolous and shallow, but it is such a big factor because it’s part of who we are.”
Fellow BSA co-founder Danielle Obe can sympathise with the struggle as it led to her revolutionary invention, Nemes — a recreational waterproof headscarf. Obe had attempted to find a solution for her middle child Kayla, who had issues with water and her hair which intensified during her swimming lessons.
“I made her a promise and said if you stick to swimming we’ll find a solution to this issue,” Obe tells ESPN. “If we can’t find a cap out there that can keep your hair dry then we’ll just have to invent one.”
Obe’s inspiration came from reading journalist Seren Jones’ article with Dearing on the issue and they got in touch with each other alongside Ed Accura, creator of “A Film Called Blacks Can’t Swim.” They had all contacted Swim England at different times to address diversity issues but felt it was the right time to unite to find a solution in late 2019.
A tragic incident where three members of a Black British family died in Spain on Boxing Day led to action. Gabriel Diya, 52, died alongside his children Praise-Emmanuel, 16, and Comfort, nine, after drowning in a resort swimming pool on the Costa del Sol.
“For me it hit home because I’m a family of five,” Obe says.
“I’ve got three kids and my husband and there was a lot of going away on holiday and when you have three coming back in body bags and only two surviving, it was just heart wrenching. We were thinking where could it have gone wrong: was it swimming aptitude or inaptitude? It was a really big thing and we just decided that morning, we’re going to launch the BSA.”
The BSA was officially launched in March 2020 and statistics from Swim England revealed that 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children in England do not swim, while the risk of drowning is higher among ethnic minority communities. “Swimming is a life skill, it’s not just the sport, and to be honest it’s a life skill over being a sport,” Dearing says when asked about the importance of the charity.
“The amount of Black people that can’t swim and that potentially could get in danger from not being able to swim is terrifying. Going to the community, confronting the issue head on, and having these conversations and trying to understand what the barriers are so we can tackle them and hopefully save lives.”
The charity aims to encourage more Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people into the water and intends on breaking down stereotypes which Dearing described as “staggering.”
When asked to share the most common ones, both Dearing and Obe reel them off like clockwork: Black people can’t swim, they can’t float, they sink when they get in the water and they have big bones.
“It’s a gradual process because we didn’t get here overnight so we’re not going to undo it overnight but at least knowing that we have the collaboration of the aquatic governing bodies — we can together overcome,” Obe says. “Another barrier is the perception of institutional inequality and the lack of visibility to actual water space in high deprivation areas which have also got a high BAME community.”
It’s been quite the transition for Obe, who never intended to “change the world” in aquatics with her background focused on management consulting and organisational development. “Now I believe that one of the reasons we’re able to make so much impact in such a short space of time is because we are disruptive force to aquatic culture,” she says.
“It’s almost taken outsiders to come in and go: ‘This is our actual experience, these are the type of people you want to get into the water and these are the real-life issues we have.’ We’re not celebrities, we’re just everyday people, but this is who you want to get into the water and this is how we can effect that change.”
Sport was forced to look at its own issues with racism amid the Black Lives Matter Movement last year and British swim sensation Adam Peaty advocated for more diversity. “I was really happy to see him do that,” Dearing says.
“It is important for other athletes to feel they can have this conversation and can speak about these issues because it does affect everybody as much as it affects Black people. It will also affect white people because there are lots of white people who don’t know how to swim — I mean my dad is one of them.
“He came from a working-class background and doesn’t know how to swim. We will eventually start to look at, why can’t so many people in Britain swim?”
Dearing believes the future generation can be inspired by herself and US swimmer Simone Manuel, who took the world by storm at the 2016 Olympics when she became the first Black woman to win gold in an individual event at the Games.
Dearing made her own bit of history a month earlier when she became the first Brit to win gold in the World Junior Open Water Championship: “It is that thing where you can’t be what you can’t see, and being able to heighten the visibility with myself, Alia Atkinson, Simone Manuel — all these incredible swimmers who are achieving great things on an international stage.
“It just shows we can do it and if there’s a little Black boy or girl who wants to get into swimming and they look up and they see somebody who looks like them were facing these challenges and speaking about it and saying: ‘Yeah can manage it,’ it’s just extra motivation.”
The COVID-19 pandemic put Dearing’s Olympic dreams on hold and rumours of further delays to the Games have irked her enough to mute the word “Olympics” from her Twitter feed, as she attempts to keep absolute focus.
“It’s quite annoying,” she says. “Most people’s first option would be: ‘I’m just going to log off Twitter’ which I’d love to do, but I’m just too addicted to it to do that. So the next step for me was: ‘OK, they’ve got this mute function, I’m going to use that.’
“I think it was that day that someone reported that the Olympics was basically cancelled and it was literally the first thing I saw in the morning and it just put me in a bad mood and I was like I don’t need this, I really don’t. I hope it didn’t sound too malicious in any way because I’m absolutely fine, it’s a pre-emptive thing that I don’t want anything to affect me when it comes to qualifying and hopefully the Olympics.”
Dearing wants no regrets on the “biggest day” of her life in Fukuoka, Japan in two months’ time: “I’m excited, and I’m incredibly nervous. Sometimes I think about it and I get that rush of adrenaline and butterflies and I say: ‘Alice, let’s save it for the race day.’
Once that hurdle is passed, Dearing can set her sights on Tokyo where she can follow in the footsteps of Kevin Burns (1976) and Paul Marshall (1980) who were the first Black British swimmers for Team GB at the Games, the latter winning bronze in Russia.
Although that would be an achievement, Dearing wants more to feel comfortable and start their own swimming journey without fear and without limitations: “Trust yourself and trust your ability and don’t let any noise from what you may have been told by anybody at any point in your life stop you from learning to swim,” she says with a smile.
“When you go do it — and I say when not if — please do it safely. The water doesn’t need to be feared, but it does need to be respected.”