Alice Dearing is the UK's first elite Black swimmer

Tokyo 2020: Team GB’s first Black female swimmer on protecting Black female athletes’ mental health

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Alice Dearing is Team GB’s first Black female swimmer, and this year she’s hoping to add to the collection of medals that the Brits have been harvesting in the pool. She chatted to writer Amy Beecham about the importance of athletes’ mental health, representation in swimming and the importance of this year’s Olympics.

Today in Tokyo, history will be made as Alice Dearing, Team GB’s first Black female swimmer, takes to the pool in the hope of adding to Great Britain’s already impressive medal haul.

Dearing started swimming at her local council’s swimming pool aged eight, after her mother signed her and her brother up to a club. “It all went from there,” she tells Stylist, from a training camp the week before she makes her Olympic debut. “I started to really enjoy it and later began competing at an elite level. Then it was regionals, nationals and I made my first senior international team when I was 17.”

Her road to the Olympics may sound like a gradual process, but she can’t quite believe she’s there. “I think I’m just kind of dumbstruck that it’s ended up being me,” she says. “It’s actually mad how few people get to this level. I’m a person who is so grateful to have this opportunity and just wants to make the most of it,” she says.

She spoke to Strong Women about the importance of representation in sport, what it’s like to be a woman on an international stage and provided some expert tips on how to improve your swimming technique.

The Olympics: a display of sporting excellence or microcosm of society’s problems?

The Tokyo 2020 games have been mired by both Covid-19 and a seemingly endless torrent of missteps by various international sporting bodies that have largely involved female athletes. From the Soul Cap ban to fining female volleyball teams for choosing to wear shorts rather than bikini bottoms, it seems we’ve heard more about women’s sports in the run-up to Tokyo for rampant sexism and misogynoir than for athletic achievement.

So what does Dearing make it of? And what is her experience of being a woman on the international stage?

“Most athletes do just want to be known for their sporting efforts and achievements,” she says. “I’m one of them, but at the same time I think it’s important to talk about these issues and help bring about change.”

“The Olympics is an opportunity to highlight and bring societal issues to the forefront of people’s minds. While it perhaps should just be about the sporting efforts, we would be blind to ignore the wider social context that comes especially with certain sports.”

Speaking about the importance of prioritising your mental health, in light of Naomi Osaka, Emma Raducanu and Simone Biles’ withdrawals from major competitions, she believes that these young women of colour are setting a very good example with their approach.

“I honestly think it’s good to see women being like, ‘I’m good, I don’t need this right now.’ Burnout is a real thing and everyone has had a crazy last 18 months. It’s good to see athletes and especially women taking accountability for their rest.”

“It’s a good thing for young athletes to see these ups and downs. When I was coming up it was hard and you felt like you were dealing with those kinds of problems and pressures alone. But I think it’s important that the next generation know their limits, and know when to take a step back.”

Simone Biles is just one of the elite Black female athletes to withdraw from competition in very recent times, citing the need to protect her mental health.
Simone Biles is just one of the elite Black female athletes to withdraw from competition in very recent times, citing the need to protect her mental health.

Building mental resilience as an elite athlete

Dearing admits that the stop-start nature of her Olympic journey has been tough. “When the first lockdown hit and the Olympics were still meant to go ahead, I couldn’t swim and couldn’t train and still had to qualify within six weeks. I kept thinking, ‘How am I going to do that?’. It was a crazy time but then everything was delayed and I took a deep breath after that.”

But that wasn’t the end of the interruptions for Dearing, which she says required a lot of mental resilience. “Quite often, I was hearing ‘the Olympics are cancelled’, even up to a few days before the opening ceremony. There were plenty of highs and lows.”

She says she handled it by “accepting what you can and can’t control.” I’ve been working hard to make sure my training is right and I’m prepared, doing everything in my power to make sure that when I have my opportunity I take it and go for it. I didn’t want to get to the qualification race, stand on the line and not feel ready. But I stood on the line and thought ‘let’s do this, I want this.’”

Swimming’s lack of representation

According to swimming’s governing body, Swim England, 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children in England do not swim, while the last recorded data from 2018 shows that less than 1% of registered competitive swimmers with Swim England identify as Black or mixed race.

Dearing agrees that representation is key to tackling this worrying statistic.

“When I was younger, I was blissfully unaware of the stereotypes around Black people and swimming. But at the same time, whenever I saw a Black elite swimmer on TV I would think ‘Oh, look at them – and they’re Black.’

“I never felt like I couldn’t be at that level or be a great swimmer because of my skin colour, but when I saw other Black people doing it, it definitely affirmed that fact.”

Dearing says that she’s always had a “very positive experience” within swimming and has never “felt out of place”, but is aware that from the outside looking in, it can seem different. Her work with P&G’s “Breaking Down Barriers” campaign, she says, has been a great example of allyship. “It’s amazing that there are people making sure that the next generation doesn’t have to feel left out.”

“It’s the biggest shame to really love something but not feel like it’s for you, and not feel wanted there.”

Dearing says she wants to do whatever she can to let people know that swimming is open to them, including co-founding the Black Swimming Association, something she is very proud of.

“It’s important that there’s something set up for Black people to protect their welfare in swimming, to make sure they’re aware of the benefits of learning to swim as a life skill.” Dearing and her other founders have largely funded the programme themselves but were recently awarded £10,000 from the Athletes For Good fund.

The Soul Cap ban and Dearing’s message of motivation for other Black swimmers

After being widely condemned as racist, the initial decision to ban Black swimmers from wearing a swimming cap brand that designs inclusive caps for Afro-haired swimmers at this year’s Tokyo Olympics is currently under review from FINA, the International Swimming Federation.

Dearing called the decision a “terrible setback” but still shared a message of motivation: “Don’t worry, there are people fighting.”

“It’s motivated so many people to get passionate and realise there is an issue within swimming,” she says. “There are people working very hard to make sure these issues don’t trickle down to those young Black boys and girls who want to be the best or who just even want to learn to swim in the first place.”

“I’m working as hard as I can to make sure these issues don’t happen again, and to make sure no one has to deal with that, at an Olympic or any level.”  

How to become a better swimmer

Many adults were good, or at least regular, swimmers as children but have let the habit slip in their later years. So what is Dearing’s advice for training to get better in the pool?

“If you really want to improve your technique, you need to have a good, strong core. It’s key to control your body in the water as it slides over you, so you need to have a base to bring everything back to – and that is your core. It’s the most important place to start.”

For strengthening core routines and how-to guides for all the key exercises, visit Strong Women Training Club.

Images: Getty

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