12 November 2019

Team GB's only black swimmer Alice Dearing on why ethnic minorities are so under-represented in her sport

British swimmer Alice Dearing speaks out about what it is like being the only black swimmer on Team GB and why there is a lack of diversity in the sport in the UK.

The 22 year-old, who currently trains at Loughborough University while studying a masters in social media and political communication, first started swimming at the age of eight at her local club in Oldbury, Birmingham.

Recently, Dearing plucked up the courage to speak out for the first time about what it feels like to be the only black swimmer on the team.

And speaking exclusively to NewsChain, she talked about how she wants to use her platform to increase diversity, while making it clear that she is not 'whining' about the issue.

“I don’t want to be a victim, I don’t want to be pitied as the only black woman on the team or anything like that," she says. "[Swimming] is just what I do and it happens to be that I am the only black person at the moment.”

Dearing is the second ever black athlete to swim competitively for Great Britain after Achieng Ajulu-Bushell took to the pool back in 2010.

She received the call to the national set-up when she was 16 and within 12 months earned a first major title in the 5km open water at the European Junior Championships.

Two years later she bettered that performance by winning gold in the 10km race at the world championships.

Dearing started to become more aware of the lack of diversity in club competitions

However, towards the end of her teenage years Dearing started to realise that she was the only non-white swimmer on the programme.

“I was quite blissfully unaware of it for a while," she says. "Especially when I was younger because the club I was at in Birmingham was in quite a diverse area and so there were quite a few non-white swimmers at the clubs I was at.

"When I say a few I mean two or three which is actually a good percentage in the UK.

“Eventually I was starting to hear things, I kind of realised that people noticed that I was black. I never really noticed it, I was just happy to go and swim but then something would suddenly bring it to my attention and then I am like ‘oh wait yeah I forgot about that.’”

“I initially spoke to my mum a bit about it because she is the black parent and she is the one who always took me swimming. She didn’t speak to me about it [when I was younger] because she didn’t want it playing on my mind.

“She would have noticed obviously from an outside perspective that I was the only mixed-race girl as there were very few of them at open meets. But she chose not to speak to me about it which I’m quite grateful for.”

Dearing is determined to encourage more ethnic minorities in the UK to take up swimming

Since coming out and speaking about her experiences, Dearing insists she wants to campaign for more diversity because she believes the amount of black children who can’t swim is 'really upsetting'.

“You can’t be what you can’t see, I just want to be someone somebody can see," she says.

“I have got an opportunity to use my voice and make a change, especially with the Olympics coming up. It’s the most publicity swimming gets, so it makes the most sense to try talking about it now.

“Hopefully there will be an increase of people wanting to swim and hopefully they [the children] will see a black swimmer on the Olympic team and it will encourage them to go and give it a go.”

However, it has not been a smooth journey for Dearing and although she is now open to speaking about what she's faced in the sport, she is aware of how carefully she needs to choose her words.

“If I say my words wrong or anything like that, or if the message comes across in a negative way, then people can take it in completely the wrong way and I could get abuse for it online," she says.

"I’ve already had a few comments but I am mature enough to be like 'I know that they are wrong, taking my words and putting it out of context'."

Swim England confirmed in the summer that 668 out of the 73,000 people registered with them in the UK are black or mixed-raced.

While this statistic was shocking to some, Dearing was not surprised by it.

When asked why she thinks it is the case, she said: “The issue is money, it’s so expensive to swim to start with. 

"For example, even just lessons to learn how to swim are about a minimum of £8 for half an hour. And then club swimming is that bit more expensive, you have to pay club fees, for competitions, training costumes and racing costumes.

“The issue I think for all these people, especially in poorer areas, will be money and the fact that there is no accessibility to clubs. Clubs in London are so expensive because pool time is so precious.

“So, if you are from a poorer black community in London and you see the price of club fees - it's literally in the thousands to be at a good club - you are not going to take up the sport.”

Putting the funding aside, Dearing shares a personal reason as to why she believes black women in particular will avoid the water.

“Chlorine damages everyone’s hair, it’s an issue for everybody," she says. "But for black women, hair is such a big identity and you get a lot of pride in having a nice afro. But because the chlorine water can damage that, you are going to avoid getting into it.

“For black girls, it is an effort to look after your hair. I was very lucky that my mum knew how to braid hair. She did my hair for me, she had the time. I would sit there for three or four hours getting my hair plaited.

“If you don’t have time to do it yourself then you have to go and pay to have someone do it for you which can go into the hundreds, and again that is another issue which black people have to deal with. If money and time are not available to have your hair sorted for swimming, it’s just going to put you off doing it.”

In 2017, Dearing's friend convinced her to go natural for the first time since she was a young child. 

She was struggling with two different textures of hair, her relaxed hair was pulling on her natural curls and it took her several months to get 'the chop' meaning all the relaxed hair was now gone.

“My hair is now easier to manage which I am so grateful for," she says. "I put in oil and leave in conditioner just to stop it from getting dry but I’m quite lucky that my hat doesn’t slip off when I do that. I know some girls that can’t put anything in their hair because their hat will slip off, but for me it doesn’t.

“It can be really difficult to manage [afro hair] because it can get very dry, very quickly. But it's nothing people can’t handle if they get used to it. It’s not difficult as long as you have a routine.”

Dearing believes change is happening but that it won't happen instantly

British Swimming, the national governing body for the sport, is supportive of Dearing's decision to bring attention to the lack of diversity in the squad, and the youngster is aware it is something that you 'cannot change overnight'.

“It is what it is," she says. "There’s nothing I can really do about it apart from try to advocate for it and open up about how more black people are needed.

“I can see change coming. So many more ethnic minorities are taking up the sport, so many more than when I was doing it ten years ago.

“Generally, what I see is that they are all really good swimmers and I am hoping at the next Olympic cycle there will be one or two more on the team. And hopefully, it will all just become a thing of the past.”

The best videos delivered daily

Watch the stories that matter, right from your inbox