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The Black Swimming Association: breaking down barriers to swimming

The Black Swimming Association is a new organisation set up to break down barriers to swimming within the BME community.

“Regardless of race, gender or culture – I think we can all agree that swimming is an essential life skill,” says Danielle Obe, one of the four founding members of the Black Swimming Association (BSA), which officially launched earlier this year. “The BSA is about making swimming accessible and visible to a community of people who culturally don’t swim.” Founded by musician Ed Accura, journalist and ex-swimmer Seren Jones, entrepreneur Danielle Obe and Team GB open water swimmer Alice Dearing, the BSA aims to overcome barriers to swimming within the BME community and drive participation, engagement and inclusion for BMEs in aquatics.

There is a common misconception that people of colour can’t swim, a myth that Ed tackled in his short documentary film, Blacks Can’t Swim, which came out last year. The film highlights the issues around the amount of black people who can’t or don’t swim. Of course, people of colour can swim (see our interview with Alice Dearing on page 36), but there is a lack of swimmers within BAME communities. Less than 10% of the competitive swimmers registered with Swim England identify as black or mixed race.

In the deep end

“I launched a campaign called Blacks Can Swim,” Ed says. “The whole idea of the film was to get rid of the stereotype. I also decided to launch a podcast, In the Deep End, where I interview black and influential celebrities about swimming.” One of the first people Ed interviewed was Alice Dearing, who was also being interviewed by BBC journalist Seren Jones. It was suggested that Ed meet her too. “Once we were connected, I suggested us all doing something together,” says Ed. “We were all doing different things with the same goal. Seren suggested we also connect with Danielle and that was the beginnings of the BSA.”

Danielle had always loved swimming but gave up when she couldn’t handle the haircare necessary to care for her hair after swimming. This is a common problem for people with afro hair and something Alice talked about with Seren, who wrote a piece for the BBC about why black girls stop swimming because of their hair. Chlorine can have a significant impact on the condition and management of afro hair. “I cut all my hair off to start again and just gave up swimming,” says Danielle. “I didn’t swim for 15-20 years, but I now have three children and I have to take them swimming. I have two daughters with very big afros and they have the same problem I had – a standard swim hat just doesn’t cover it.” Danielle made it her mission to solve the afro haircare problem. Eventually, when treating her hair at home and wrapping it in a scarf, she realised that was the answer: “I got hold of the same fabric that is used for swimming hats and started wrapping the hair in a scarf style,” she says. “It wasn’t just protecting the hair from chlorine, it was also rehydrating the hair.” At this point Danielle read Seren’s piece and got in touch to share her idea to help people with afro hair into the water.

Drowning tragedy

The four met in October last year and agreed something for the black community was needed. They decided to meet again in the new year to plan the launch. But then on Christmas Eve, a British black man and his two children drowned in a pool while on holiday on the Costa del Sol. Gabriel Diya and his son Praise-Emmanuel Diya are thought to have died as they tried to rescue daughter and sister Comfort Diya. The mother, Olbunmi, and sibling, Favour, witnessed the horrific event. “I knew that family,” says Danielle. “I have a husband and three of my own children. I can’t imagine going on holiday for only two of us to return with three of us in caskets. I was devastated. This was no longer just about swimming; it was so much bigger. It was about water safety, lifesaving and drowning prevention. You could have saved all three of them. This had become personal and we just couldn’t wait to launch.”

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Founders of the BSA: (from left to right) Alice Dearing, Danielle Obe, Seren Jones, Ed Accura.

The BSA have joined up with Swim England, the STA and the RLSS. They are exploring adapting systems that already exist, redesigning and developing ways to attract more black people into the water. “It is about ensuring the resources are in place to make swimming more accessible and visible in the community,” says Danielle. “We are exploring swim clinics, swim buddies and using existing communities like the church to get people in the water. It is about getting people to appreciate the value of swimming from a health perspective, as a skill or a career path.”

Working together

The team see the BSA as a platform for education and making a key skill available to more people. “We have had one or two situations where people have commented it increases segregation,” says Danielle. “But one of the great things that has happened since we have launched is that people have contacted us to get involved, not all from BAME communities, so it is about bringing communities together. We have to understand there are issues here, accept them and find ways of resolving them. You can’t deal with an issue you don’t understand. I don’t claim to understand issues for Indian women and swimming, but we could work together to understand and help each other.”

As someone who is learning to swim, Ed is really excited about the potential for the BSA. “My mum’s idea of water safety is to stay away from it,” says Ed. “I didn’t learn to swim because of my mum. We identified the issue that a high proportion of black people can’t or don’t swim. This is now about encouraging as many people as possible to swim and learn water safety, be aware of drowning prevention and understand lifesaving.”

To find out more about the BSA visit: thebsa.co.uk.

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