If you follow H2Open Magazine on social media, you may have noticed that last week we overlaid our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram icons with gay pride rainbows. You may have wondered what this had to do with open water swimming.
Last Wednesday, Helena Martins was the victim of a homophobic attack outside her home. Her crime was to be a gay woman wearing a tie. She was left cut, bruised and with a swollen neck where her attacker had tried to strangle her with her tie. Rather than be a victim of hate crime, Helena decided to speak out. Her story was reported in the Evening Standard and she launched an online campaign with the hashtag #tieforhelena to raise money for gay rights charity Stonewall.
What has this got to do with our sport? Helena is an open water swimmer, English Channel aspirant and member of the Serpentine and South London swimming clubs. In a week when Sports Personality of the Year nominee, boxer Tyson Fury, caused controversy with his views on women, homosexuality and abortion, it was gratifying to see the reaction from the open water swimming community to Helena’s attack. We shared her story on Facebook and were overwhelmed with the support she received. Open water swimmers around the country wore ties over the weekend and yesterday to show their support, and so far Helena has raised over £1500 for Stonewall.
When we talk about swimming outdoors one of the first things we mention is freedom: freedom of movement, freedom of being in nature – and the freedom to be yourself. When I was at school I was bullied for being gay. One of the few places I found respite was the school pool; swimming endless lengths every lunchtime was my refuge from the constant taunts and name-calling. Swimming was an escape, a place where I felt safe. The attack on Helena was a reminder that this country, even in London, can still be a difficult and dangerous place for LGBT people. But I have also always found the open water swimming community to be welcoming and accepting regardless of gender, sexuality or race. Likewise, the reaction against Fury, including long jumper Greg Rutherford threatening to remove himself from the competition in protest at Fury’s views, is hopefully indicative of an increasingly tolerant society in general.
We spend a lot of time at H2Open worrying about the decline in participation in swimming and how we can get more people from all backgrounds involved in our sport. But actually we sometimes forget to focus on the positives: the latest Sport England figures show a rise in participation in open water swimming; of the 2.5 million people who swim indoors, 17,800 more people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities have started swimming more regularly; initiatives like Swim Dem Crew are introducing open water swimming to a young, black audience in east London; the Special Olympics for athletes with learning disabilities includes open water swimming in its events. True, there is always more to be done, especially in increasing participation of ethnic minorities in open water swimming, but when I look at the men and women of all ages who take part in outdoor swimming events up and down the country I think it is fair to say we are a pretty diverse and accepting bunch.
You can support #tieforhelena by donating to Stonewall at Helena’s Justgiving page.