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Swimming while black: stories from the community

We love to say that open water swimming is for all. But is that aspirational rather than a statement

of truth?

Swimming, and particularly outdoor swimming, is one of the least diverse sports. As the Black Lives Matters protests took place over the globe last month, heated debates were had on outdoor swimming community Facebook groups about racism in outdoor swimming and swimming in general.

The necessity of the Black Swimming Association was called into question. Many swimmers stated the belief that because they themselves were welcoming and inclusive, then

there was no problem with diversity in the outdoor swimming community. But this doesn’t address the issues

that cause barriers to entry to swimming and outdoor swimming

for black people.

At the end of June, inner-city swim club Swim Dem Crew started collecting stories to highlight the issues that prevent black people taking up or continuing with swimming. Founded in the summer of 2013, Swim Dem Crew’s mission has always been to get more people swimming, make the sport more inclusive, less solitary, and a lot more social,

using swimming as a tool to

empower people.

Here, founders Peigh Asante and Nathaniel Cole share some of the stories they received.

Peigh Asante and Nathaniel Cole

As #BlackLivesMatter starts to lose traction from the wave last month, and people slowly try to move on, it’s important that we bring the conversation back to the forefront of peoples minds.

At the end of June, we started gathering stories of #SwimmingWhileBlack to highlight the issues that the swimming industry has for Black people.


“Swimming while black is knowing that the swimming world wasn’t built with you in mind. It’s an industry that has created products for their default audience, white people. It’s the things that for some, might seem insignificant, but for black people, can be the difference between swimming and not swimming. Things such as forgetting your swimming cap when you arrive at the pool but then not having the option of purchasing a suitable cap that can hold your braids, dreadlocks etc, because they don’t sell it at the centre.”


“Getting a qualifying time to compete in a schools swim competition, only to be replaced by a slower white classmate… my P.E. teacher said he would ‘perform on the day’.”


“Swimming while black is myself and my brother being the only non-white swimmers in our swimming class. It’s been constantly told that black people can’t swim, despite being evidence that this wasn’t true. It’s going swimming at the local pool during the summer with friends, and people automatically believing you can’t swim, or convinced they can beat you in a race simply due to my race. It’s wanting to give up due to it ruining my hair, and knowing no one like me with my hair that also swims.”


“I feel a lot of shame around swimming. I was one of three black kids in my school, so when we were learning to swim, I would often have to deal with jokes about my braids not fitting in the swim cap and once the white instructor even tried to ‘help’ me by forcing my hair into the cap in front of the whole class. It was physically painful and deeply embarrassing for me but my standard response to things like this was to laugh them off. At that school, swimming classes were more about competition than anything else. We would have annual races, and I would always lose or come very close to last. I didn’t have a chance to enjoy being in water because of how closely I associated it with being incompetent and my body being weird/a joke. Now I’m much older and I don’t really swim. I want to take classes again but I want to do them with someone nonjudgmental and preferably a black woman.”


Swimming while being a black woman with periods is hard and long and largely why I gave it up. The provisions aren’t there for me to have a comfortable time in the water. It could be periods this week and braids next week. We need more product that accounts for our individual needs.


“Defying “genetics”

I “float and glide

through water just fine”

A compliment?

The detriment

How many times would I hear that again?

Ashy skin – no time for cream

Dressed and out with the rest of the team

I’m splitting caps, plaits long and fat

Not yet able to see the beauty in that

A solitary view

Standing poolside to clock

Swimmers like you

Hashtag brown watch

I enter the water

Judged already

Micro-aggressions saying

Read the lane!

I am confidence shaken

Thanks, I’ll stay.

Tensions fade

Freedom and space

My special place

The Water

Gives me power

Gives me peace

Raise me up beyond their reach.

Out, pulsating, floating and fresh

Moisturise: a meditation of love for my skin

At Saturday Splash

I don’t rush that

Thank you, Peigh

Thank you, Nat.


For me

Is an act of Resistance

Pride, Peace, Power, Existence.”

#swimdemcrew #SwimmingWhileBlack #BlackGirlsDontSwim


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Jonathan is a year-round skins swimmer with a particular love of very cold water. He has competed in ice swimming competitions around the world. He is a qualified open water coach with a particular love of introducing new swimmers to the open water.