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Alice Dearing: Being Britain’s black swimmer

Alice Dearing is often asked the same questions about being the black swimmer from Britain.

The age-old stereotype is that black people can’t swim – a view that is so obviously wrong – and yet for some reason that myth still seems to linger in the background.

According to figures from Sport England, 95% of black adults and 80% of black children in England do not swim. Meanwhile just 1% of registered competitive swimmers with Swim England identify as black or mixed race.

Those numbers mean that 23-year-old Alice, Britain’s best open-water swimmer, has essentially become the poster girl for black swimming.

It’s a role she definitely takes in her stride. She co-founded the Black Swimming Association in March this year and has teamed up with SOUL CAP, a black-owned brand that creates larger swimming caps for those with larger hair.

In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, that reached its height during lockdown, questions about race and equality are rightly on the agenda. For Alice that means talking about those issues whenever it arises in her role as a black swimming spokesperson.

But it’s also a role that shouldn’t really exist in an ideal world.

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“It’s something I am really proud of but at the same time I don’t want the title of it because I really just wish it wasn’t an issue,” she said.

“The absolute ideal would be that I don’t have to discuss those issues because they don’t exist. Black people could just happily go about swimming without any of the stereotypes and myths weighed upon them.

“Whilst I’m really proud of what I have achieved and who I am – stuff like that – I do wish there wasn’t a context to it if that makes sense?

“Obviously tied within that is a history of racism and discrimination, which I really don’t think should have any place in society.

“If I can help debunk that and help people realise these are myths and stereotypes, which don’t deserve to be put upon people, then I want to do that. I’m happy to take that accolade but I’m hoping that eventually it won’t be relevant.”

“I might not look like what society wants me to look like”

The perceived image of what a swimmer ‘looks like’ doesn’t stretch to just race either. It also comes down to body image, something that so many sportswomen have to deal with regardless of their discipline.

As revealed by the BBC Elite British Sportswomen Survey released earlier this month, 77.5% of respondents said they were conscious of their body image. Alice was one of the sportswomen that took part.

“With swimming you quite often hear ‘oh you don’t look like a swimmer’ or ‘they don’t look like a swimmer’ – something like that,” she explained.

“So, there are ideals in all sports I imagine where you expect that person who does that sport to look like. In swimming, for example, it’s normally quite tall, broad shoulders and lean.

“Personally, myself, I’m not the tallest swimmer – I’m 5ft 4in – and then I’m already telling people and hearing ‘oh my God you swim?’

“Yeah you can still swim without being tall. I mean, I might be at a slight disadvantage but it’s never something that I dwell upon or think actually affects my swimming.

“It’s quite interesting if we really delve into what we expect sportswomen to look like but that’s another issue placed upon them.

“I might not look like what society wants me to look like but then on top of that I might not look like what my sport expects me to look like, which is just a crazy thought to think about.”

LISTEN: Olivia Breen: From the lowest low to world champion

While the 23-year-old did admit to being someone who has been conscious of her body image in the past it’s not something she lets herself dwell on.

“When I turn up to the pool, I always think I look like what I look like,” Alice continued.

“I can’t change my height, I can’t make myself much broader and I can make myself more muscular but that doesn’t always correspond to increasing your performance.

“I suppose it’s controlling what you can control. I can control what I eat, I can try and control my weight etc. I try not to dwell on it too much and it’s not something worth giving energy to or giving time to.

“As long as I’m performing physically well and feeling good about myself then that’s all good.

“Typically, I do normally feel good about myself, and feel good in myself, so I don’t give the self-consciousness of my body image any time really. I try not to anyway although it’s easier said than done.”

“I kind of based my whole self-worth on swimming”

Being a spokesperson for black swimming and highlighting these issues is all part of what makes Alice tick. But let’s not forget there’s a serious athlete here targeting success at the Tokyo Olympics.

With the Games now postponed for a year – a blessing in disguise according to the swimmer – it gives her another 12 months to prepare herself.

Her experiences along the way have already proved invaluable, particularly three years ago when she was dropped from funding and almost quit the sport altogether.

“In 2017 I got dropped from funding and was kicked out of the National Centre in Loughborough,” she said.

“I kind of based my whole self-worth on swimming, on being on funding and on being in the National Centre.

“To have both of those things taken away from me in one go was such a big knock for me because I’d based it on ‘oh I’m a good swimmer because I’m on funding’ or ‘I’m a good swimmer because I’m in the centre’.

“Neither of these things – they help you grow – but they don’t mean categorically that you are a good swimmer. The funding part of it was really hard because that was part of my livelihood obviously as a swimmer. That was my main source of income.

“To lose that I was like ‘ok, I’ve had a rough year, I just need to come back better and stronger and just try to get back on it’. I did do that and I’m so proud of doing that but that was quite a few months process initially.

“I did nearly quit because of it because I didn’t want to live off my mum again. I’m fortunate that my parents are wealthy enough that they can give me money if I need it but I didn’t want that obviously.

“I did end up doing that for a bit, got back on funding and got moving again.

“In terms of being kicked out of the squad that I was in, I moved to the Loughborough University squad and honestly it worked so much better for me.

“I had a really good time in the centre – that’s where I became World Junior Champion – and the second year I was there it just didn’t work for me.

“It’s just one of those things where I was told it either does work for you, or it doesn’t, and it didn’t in the end.

“I was quite grateful in the end that I did get kicked off funding and I did get kicked out of the centre because it really showed me that I don’t just swim because of those two things. I swim because I enjoy it.

“It was a really good wake-up call for me and, whilst at the time it felt like the world was ending, I’m really grateful that both of them happened and that someone had the sight to see she just needs to take a step back from this.”

Interview: Alasdair Hooper

Words: Alasdair Hooper

Image credits: With thanks to Alice Dearing

All music in this episode is courtesy of Otis McDonald.

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