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Swimming for all? Poolside or at the beach, ethnic minorities face barriers

by Lin Taylor and Carey L. Biron | @linnytayls | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 13 July 2021 09:01 GMT

Peigh Asante (L) and Nathaniel Cole, co-founders of London-based swimming club and school Swim Dem Crew, are pictured swimming in the sea. Handout courtesy of Sebastian Barros via THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

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Despite being under-represented in swimming, more Black and ethnic minority groups are taking to plunge to occupy spaces by the water

* Swimming rates among Black and minority communities lag

* Gap also seen in beach access and water sports

* Pandemic, heatwaves put new focus on inequalities

By Lin Taylor and Carey L. Biron

LONDON/WASHINGTON, July 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Peigh Asante suffered a running injury at the age of 27, doctors said his recovery would be aided by swimming - something neither he, nor anyone else in his British-Ghanaian family, had ever learned to do.

But it only took a few lessons before he was hooked.

"I fell in love with it, became addicted to it. It was quite daunting at the start, but it became really exciting. There's a new space and this new world, and I was excited to explore it," Asante, now 36, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Just months later, Asante competed in his first triathlon, before co-founding Swim Dem Crew, an inner city swimming club and school in London that helps others take the plunge.

"If people can't see people like themselves in those spaces, they're not going to want to do it, and they're not going to think it's for them," said Asante.

In Britain, less than 10% of Black and Asian adults swim regularly according to Sport England, the national swimming body. And Britain is not an isolated case.

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of the country's African American children have little to no swimming ability, compared to 40% of their white peers.

"Water safety for some communities is not: learn how to be safe in the water. It's just: don't go near the water," said Mike Hawkes, inclusion and safety partner at Swim England.

"Swimming is a key life skill. And we don't want certain communities to be precluded from being able to access that as a result of misconceptions and systemic inequalities," he said.

People wait to swim at the opening of James Finnegan Playground's pool as around two thirds of city swimming pools begin to reopen, due to a shortage of lifeguards, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah Beier


Financial constraints and a lack of nearby pools, suitable hair accessories or modest swimwear can deter some Black, Asian and ethnic minority Britons from swimming, said Seren Jones, who co-founded the Black Swimming Association (BSA).

Jones, a former elite swimmer who started the association last year to increase diversity in water sports, said because hair is such an integral part of Black identity, the thought of getting it wet could also put some people off.

Not knowing anyone who can swim, or having little exposure to water sports or a coastal lifestyle, also dampen people's interest in learning, she added.

"I've always known that Black women are extremely athletic and successful. We see them dominate dry land sports. But I always wondered why that isn't the case in water sports," said Jones.

Swimming, particularly at elite level and in nations that bag most of the medals when the Olympics come around, has long been a predominately white activity.

Although Alice Dearing, a co-founder of BSA, will become Britain's first Black female Olympic swimmer, sporting body FINA was criticised for saying a swimming cap designed to fit over dreadlocks, braids and afros could not be used at Tokyo.

FINA said it would review its decision.

People swim at the opening of James Finnegan Playground's pool as around two thirds of city swimming pools begin to reopen, due to a shortage of lifeguards, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah Beier


Months of coronavirus restrictions and last year's Black Lives Matter protests have put renewed focus on racial injustice, from access to public spaces to health inequalities.

Record heatwaves in the United States this summer have raised concerns over how accessible urban pools are, said Linda Hwang, director of innovation and strategy at the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit that advocates for public spaces.

Hwang said there is little data on how equitably pools are located in the United States but estimated it would mirror park access, where neighbourhoods of colour have 44% less green space per capita than white neighbourhoods, according to the trust.

Underfunding in cities often results in youths heading to pools in richer suburbs, raising questions over whether they "can feel safe coming into these locations", said her colleague Ronda Chapman, the trust's equity director.

Though the importance of nature was spotlighted during the COVID-19 pandemic, the great outdoors, known to improve mental health, is not easily accessible to everyone, said a report by British walking charity Ramblers.

About 19% of white children visited the coast compared to just 5% of children from a Black, Asian or ethnic minority background, according to 2018-19 figures from environmental group Natural England.

Jones from the BSA said having basic swimming skills was a gateway to leisure activities by the coast like sailing and surfing - hobbies where minorities are traditionally under-represented.

"If you can swim and feel comfortable in the water, you're opening up all these incredible opportunities for yourself."

A youth programme participant learns to surf at Rockaway Beach, New York, in 2016. Handout photo courtesy of Surfrider NYC via THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION

Yet in the United States, access to beaches is still largely defined by a legacy of racial segregation, said Pete Stauffer, environmental director for the Surfrider Foundation, which advocates for public access to beaches.

In addition to racist laws aimed at guiding who lived where, many pools and beaches were off-limits for certain minority communities for decades.

Today, even if people live by the coast, like the community near New York City's Rockaway Beach, it does not mean locals feel confident using that space, said Moe Magali, who runs the Rockaway Youth programme for the Surfrider Foundation.

"You have kids who have the whole beach in their backyard but don't know how to access it. It's not because they don't want to. It's lack of experience," said Magali, whose programme helps local, low-income children learn to swim and surf.

In coastal areas across England and Wales, about 5% of the population are from an ethnic minority, according to the 2011 national census, while the rest are white.

For south Londoner Asante, it is important for ethnic minorities to be visible and show up in swimming spots and coastal areas.

"Obviously when you go to those places, you are the minority. But it's about still turning up and showing up because if you don't, then no one's ever going to go there," he said.


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(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls in London and Carey L. Biron @clbtea in Washington; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories.)

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