'Swimming has changed my life': Alice Dearing, the only black swimmer on the British team, is determined to end stereotypes in her sport

GB swimmer Alice Dearing in training at Loughborough University - 'Swimming has changed my life', says  the only black swimmer on the British team
Just 668 out of 73,000 competitive swimmers in the UK identify as black or mixed race Credit: John Robertson

It is around halfway in our interview when Alice Dearing casually drops it into conversation. “My dad doesn’t know how to swim, but my mum does,” she says. “My dad’s white and my mum’s black. Bless him, he just never learnt when he was younger and it’s so hard to teach an adult.” 

Dearing does not linger on this thought, despite being the only black swimmer on the British team at present and the second ever to swim competitively for Great Britain. Amid juggling a masters degree in social media and political communication at Loughborough University with the aim of competing in the women’s 10km race at Tokyo 2020, the 22-year-old is on a wider mission to quash a stereotype that has long dogged her sport: that black people can’t swim. 

It was not growing up in the multiculturally diverse suburb of Aldbury, Birmingham - a stone’s throw away from where the pool for the 2022 Commonwealth Games is being built - which blurred Dearing’s early understanding of her own ethnicity, but in her local pool.

“It sounds bad, but I’ve always seen myself as white because I’m always surrounded by white people and swimming is a white sport. Am I white? I’m not, but I was quite blinded by it,” she says. “I realised that a lot of people didn’t see me the way I saw myself. I didn’t really see colour for a while until a few things happened along the way.”

The first of those things occurred when an 11-year-old girl in Dearing’s swimming group made it quite clear she didn’t want to swim with any Indians, which, while not directed at Dearing herself, was enough to make her recoil in shock and question whether she was different. As a teenager, she bore the brunt of reactions from poolside parents who were surprised by her white-sounding name, before discovering through a friend that a coach had indirectly called her a “skinny n****r” when she was 17. 

Accelerating the slow uptake of black swimmers remains at the forefront of Alice Dearing's ambition Credit: John Robertson

Such experiences have sharpened Dearing’s determination to embrace her own ethnicity in adulthood. Growing up, she would chemically straighten her hair, but now she acknowledges her afro curls are a symbol of black empowerment. Afro-hair is more susceptible to damage from chlorinated water than non-afro hair due to its inability to retain moisture, but it is a problem that few swimmers in Britain can resonate with: just 668 out of 73,000 competitive swimmers in the UK identify as black or mixed race.

“Swimming is a middle class thing,” admits Dearing. “It’s not cheap to do it, sadly. Paying for club fees, it can get really expensive and that obviously marginalises not just a load of black children, but a load of white children too. When I was about 9-16, when I’d see another non-white person poolside, I’d be like, ‘Oh my god!’ I’d try and find out their name and everything about them.

“Why would you put your child through swimming when it looks like they’ve got a better chance of succeeding in athletics or football or a sport where there are more black people out there and it’s visible that people of your race exceed in a sport? It’s a no-brainer.”

On Friday, Dearing will form part of a special Black History Month panel at The Telegraph, along with the first black woman to play for the England cricket team, Ebony-Rainford Brent, and Paul Canoville, Chelsea’s first black player. She is prepared to use her voice in an era where black sports women often require an extra layer of musculature to navigate the barriers of race, gender and stereotypes, is commendable. Few will never forget how Serena Williams was depicted an ‘angry black woman’ against a whitewashed Naomi Osaka at last year’s US Open, while Tottenham player Renee Hector has spoken of spiralling into depression after being sent gorilla photos from trolls following the FA’s first recorded case of racism in women’s football in May.

Accelerating the slow uptake of black swimmers remains at the forefront of Dearing's ambition. According to Swim England, the number of recreational BAME swimmers aged over 11 who swim on a monthly basis has increased by just nine per cent in the past three years. 

“I have seen loads more people of colour at junior age group competitions around Britain - mainly from clubs in London, obviously that makes sense because the demographic in London is more diverse,” says Dearing.

“It’s the fact that black people miss their lessons in school because they don’t think it’s for them. It’s hard to look at swimming as a little back girl and be like, ‘I want to do that’.

“But swimming has changed my life in so many ways and I want people to have that opportunity too.” Whether she can extend that wish to her dad remains to be seen.