The Daily Telegraph
Cap ruling makes a splash for equality
Approved swimming hat that caters for dreadlocks, afros and braids could lift black participation, writes Yolanthe Fawehinmi
Alice Dearing has been swimming laps around one of the nation’s lingering stereotypes – that black people cannot swim
– for 16 years. She has laughed, splashed and revelled in this achievement, despite growing up being the only mixedrace person behind the starting block with the only black mother in the crowd.
According to Swim England, 95 per cent of black adults do not swim, and 80 per cent of black children have never swam. At the same time, only two per cent of regular swimmers in England are black.
There are still numerous contributing factors that explain why most are less likely to swim: it is not accessible for everyone, a lack of representation in competitive water sports, a fear of drowning, plus elders suffering from aquaphobia – a mindset that perpetuates that it is safer to stay out of the water entirely instead of learning how to swim.
“The water doesn’t discriminate,” says Dearing, a professional open water swimmer.
Just before the 25-year-old represented Great Britain at the Tokyo Olympics for the first time, FINA rejected an application from Soul Cap, which creates swimming caps that accommodate dreadlocks, afros, weaves, braids and thick and curly hair, to become certified for competitive swimming at every level. Founders Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed were told that the hats were not suitable because they do not follow “the natural form of the head”. But after over a year of talks, campaigns and partnerships, this decision was overturned this month by the global governing body.
“It’s a shame there had to be such a public outcry, but this is very positive news and sends a great message to people with longer and thicker hair looking at swimming. It shows that the sport is for everyone,” says Dearing.
For black and ethnic minority women, their hair is a point of heritage, self-expression and pride. They are also prone to hair damage and dryness, due to the chlorine found in water. All this makes swimming an inconvenience – especially since caps could never fit over their hair.
“I wanted my hair to be as straight as possible,” says Dearing. “I had such a feeling of elation after my mum would put a chemical relaxer on my hair and then braid it – without extensions – so it could fit quite easily into a regular swimming cap. Soul Cap has ensured there’s one less barrier people have to think about when getting in the pool now.”
In 2019 a BBC Freedom of Information request to Swim England, the national governing body revealed that out of 73,000 competitive swimmers, only 668 identified as black or mixed race.
Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-bushell, 28, decided to leave swimming just six months before the London 2012 Olympic Games. Having first swam aged six, she became the first black female swimmer to represent Britain in 2010.
“I was one of the only black faces poolside. And I’m mixed race, and was still quite young and figuring out what my relationship to blackness was. So to have that label put upon me didn’t make much sense at the time,” she says.
“It would be stupid to suggest that Soul Cap doesn’t have the ability to make the sport more inclusive. It’s great for signposting and the visibility of black culture and it will help galvanise a whole generation of young girls into swimming. But there’s been more controversy created around this than there needs to be.
“Until the sport changes its cultural biases and stops seeing black swimmers as the exception to tropes, such as black people being too heavy-boned with dense
muscle so they cannot float, they won’t get to a position where they can do meaningful work.”
Seren Jones, one of the co-founders of the Black Swimming Association (BSA) believes the sport has been guilty of prejudice and cultural exclusion in the past.
“The Soul Cap decision shows that swimming is moving in the right direction and becoming more inclusive,” says the 28-year-old. “But until people from disenfranchised and marginalised communities feel as though they know how to be safe around bodies of water, have equal access to aquatic facilities around the country, and there is representation across the board from grass-roots level all the way up to elite level, that’s when the work of the BSA will be done. We are still so far from that.”
Swim England understands how swimming hats designed for long hair can reduce barriers to the sport for under-represented groups.
“It’s why we always permitted their use for participation, training and racing – even whilst they were not permitted by FINA,” a spokesman said. “Only four per cent of black or mixed-race adults go swimming at least twice a month and Swim England is aware there are misconceptions that prevent participation. That is why we launched our England Swims campaign to gain insight from ethnically-diverse communities and demonstrate our determination to make a significant change within our sports.”
The findings from the survey will be published next month and will help shape their next 10-year strategy. Dearing says: “Everyone should have the opportunity and access to learning how to swim. It’s a life skill.”