Diversifying the world of aquatics
In England, more than 90 per cent of Black and Asian adults and around 80 per cent of Black and Asian children do not swim, according to figures from Sport England. It is a situation that the Black Swimming Association (BSA) is determined to change. Nellie Khossousi speaks to BSA co-founder, broadcast journalist and former elite swimmer Seren Jones about how the charity is diversifying the world of aquatics and raising awareness about water safety among Black and Asian communities.
Why did you set up the BSA?
Each summer, when we had a heatwave, young people would flock to rivers and beaches. Whenever someone drowned, that person tended to look like us. And that is something we want to change. There was already an existing narrative around Black and brown people not being able to swim, and we decided we wanted to do something about it.
What are the BSA’s main goals?
We have two branches of the charity. The research and insights branch commissions research projects to help us understand the barriers for people of African, Caribbean and Asian descent in the world of aquatics and swimming. We also have our delivery programme branch, which delivers water safety sessions to participants.
Swimming opens the door to all these other activities: canoeing, kayaking or getting on a jet ski or banana boat. You can apply to careers like being a pilot, firefighter or stunt person, or work for a charity like the RNLI.
We frame swimming as a physical thing but it’s also fantastic for your mental health. Studies show that people who swim more have a better social life. They're happier. There has been a massive increase in wild swimming since Covid-19. Simply going into cold water for 90 seconds is good for your brain; it releases endorphins. There are all these amazing benefits of swimming, whether physical, mental or economic. We try to make people consider how swimming can enhance their life.
There’s a representation issue
What barriers do people from minority ethnic communities face when it comes to swimming and aquatics?
Swimming is more expensive than, say, running outside or playing football, activities that require less kit and supervision. You need a swimming costume, a hat, goggles, a towel and a pound for a locker. They’re also an inconvenience for parents. A lot of Black and brown people are from lower socio-economic areas.
There’s a representation issue. Alice Dearing is the first Black female Olympian to swim for Team GB and one of the co-founders of BSA. But there is only one Alice Dearing. If there were more, there’d be more young children who look like her who would try swimming.
Hair is a barrier. For many Black people, hair is part of our identity and it costs a lot to maintain. By going into water that has bleach – which is known to damage Afro hair more than non-Afro hair – it just doesn’t make sense for many people.
Finally, aquaphobia very much exists, especially among older generations. Many have never swum before or haven’t swum in years because of a traumatic event. Perhaps they failed to float or have been told they can’t because of their skin colour. Now these people are passing that same fear to their children and grandchildren.
What can others do to make aquatics more welcoming and accessible?
We’ve seen big brands adopt modest swimwear, making it easier for women who want to cover their bodies, and diversify their swimming caps, which have traditionally been very small. We have different hairstyles and textures that require more space, and now some caps cater to that. But more needs to be done.
Some sessions exist for women only. It would be great to see more sessions for men only and for the LGBTQ+ community who want a safe space.
What are your current projects?
Our Together We Can project is a water safety initiative spanning five weeks. The intention is to teach participants to be safe around water and what to do in an emergency. We have several different groups who take part. Participants relearn what it means to float, swim, and the power their bodies have in the water. After five weeks, many return to the pool and do their own thing with their friends.
Recently, one of our aunties in her 70s, who I was teaching in the pool in Hackney, said, ‘I've lived in this neighbourhood my entire life, but I've never stepped foot in here because I never thought it was for me.’ And that’s what we're trying to get rid of.
‘You can do swimming from womb to tomb’
What achievement are you most proud of with the BSA?
There are two. Last December, we won an award recognising our work from the National Lottery Awards. That was so incredible and emotional because I never thought three years [after being founded] that we’d win awards for something many people didn’t initially understand.
Honestly, the most rewarding part is the participants. I am one of the lead teachers. Seeing participants go to week five knowing how to be safe, enjoy being in the water and accomplish something they never thought they’d be able to do is really fantastic.
A handful of participants who were aquaphobic but grew and fell in love with the water now teach the next generation. They’re the best teachers.
What are the BSA’s future plans?
To expand and continue what we're doing. To prevent drowning, we need to ensure everybody knows what to do in an emergency. There's always more work to do until everybody is safe. And this isn't just for adults, this is for children too. We want to get this into schools before it's too late. Expansion is key.
What advice would you give someone who feels aquatics is not for them?
It's never too late. Aquatics is for you; you just haven't found your tribe to go with. There's a saying in competitive swimming: ‘You can do swimming from womb to tomb.’ When you're in the womb, you are in the water, and even in your 90s, because swimming is such a low-impact activity, you can do it for as long as you can.
It doesn't matter where you’re from, what colour you are, your background, your heritage. You belong in water. And if you give it a chance and find people to take you on that journey, that will enrich your life.
Find out more about the BSA on its website. Nellie Khossousi is a multilingual travel writer, filmmaker and content producer who shares stories about underrepresented communities in the hope of making travel more accessible and inclusive.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
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Photo: BSA co-founders Seren Jones (right) and Danielle Obe © BSA
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