Water is an integral part of our lives – the world is made up of more than 71% of it, and the majority of our body too. Swimming is the ultimate way to immerse in and connect with the element – not only does it provide us with numerous mental and physical health benefits, but is also a vital life-saving skill. With the abundance of water around us, swimming should be a right for everyone to partake in. Yet it remains a privilege, in which certain demographics – such as the Black community – are disproportionately excluded from.
Growing up, swimming was a major part of my life – I swam regularly until I was sixteen, when I then moved towards employment in the sector, becoming a lifeguard and later a swimming teacher. Despite growing up in a relatively diverse environment, when it came to swimming lessons – particularly as I advanced through the sport – I saw few people who looked like me, both in the pool and teaching on the sidelines. Reaching my teenage years, when hair and body issues became constant, fixating issues for me, there was no one I could reach out for assistance or advice – my own mother didn’t swim for the very same reasons.
My experience is not unique, nor purely anecdotal – according to statistics from Swim England, 80% of Black adults and 95% of Black children do not swim. Out of all competitive swimmers in the UK, only 1% identify as Black or mixed-race. When we think of a typical swimmer, we don’t conceive of an image that strays far from a Michael Phelps-esque character – and unfortunately, this is what often is replicated in the aquatics world. The swimming world is undeniably one that is a predominately white and middle-class environment and despite being such a vital skill for people to have, continues to be an incredibly exclusive sport.
There are numerous barriers preventing swimming and the pool being an accessible place for people – from cost and time to having adequate facilities in local areas. The very genetic myths that continue to persist as an explanation for the low participation rates – that Black people can’t swim, or are unable to float due to heavy bones – creates an environment where the pool appears to be a space that is not ours to occupy. Scientific racism is certainly not a new phenomenon, but continues to appear in insidious ways and sets the context for participation rate disparities even today.
We can also look at swimming products as a reason behind exclusion. Hair, for example, is a huge part of people’s identity, and the inability to have swimming caps or hair products that are both tailored for thicker, coarser hair and suitable for use in the water can rightfully turn people away. Although these products are beginning to become more mainstream, they remain more expensive and harder to source than the default products popularly stocked in leisure centres and elsewhere. This can create an overwhelming feeling of whiteness and its accompanying features being the default in the pool.
Swimming requires a great deal of vulnerability, and currently, there appears to be a lack of sensitivity and understanding when providing lessons. For many, particularly those from communities that are less likely to learn to swim, school lessons can be their only exposure to the sport. Despite being enshrined in the national curriculum, the quality of school swimming lessons often leaves a lot to be desired – an overheated, underventilated, highly chlorinated pool, filled to capacity with classmates in a severely limited time frame is not conducive to wanting to continue to learn, or seeing swimming as a sport that is enjoyable. As a result, there are many people who are put off from lessons as a child, returning to them as an adult carrying with them a number of fears and apprehensions, or never again at all.
Swimming goes much further than simply going up and down a lane in a leisure centre. Connection with water is central to ourselves and our wellbeing and something that simply can’t be replicated on land. I often compare the experience to what I think it would feel like to walk on the moon; being weightless and calm.
In a time when pools face uncertain futures, and the pandemic is further widening health inequalities between demographics, the Government and national sports bodies in the swimming world need to be making real, tangible change in order to address these disparities and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be in the water.