Even though swimming is a joyful experience for Dale, the stark reality is that many Black communities in Britain and the US do not have safe access to swimming lessons and public pools due to historic racism and segregation — a problem that is especially alarming given that, as Dale says, it is “the only sport that can save your life.”
The lack of access afforded to Black communities in Britain is what motivated Dale to become a swimming teacher in September 2019.
“I used to work in Kensington (in London) as a lifeguard and some of the richest people live in that borough, but also some of the poorest,” she says. She saw there was a difference when private schools and independent schools would come in and all the kids were able to swim, yet hardly any children of the same age that Dale saw from state schools could swim 25 meters.
“There’s a real class barrier in the sport of swimming,” Dale adds.
“There’s like a lot of people who come to swim lessons … who have undergone some form of trauma, whether that be water-related trauma or trauma related to their everyday lives,” Dale says.
“Many people say it’s like an escape from their daily lives or is, actually, the first time that they’ve taken time for themselves.”
Likewise, about 93% of Asian adults and 78% of Asian children, including those with Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage, do not regularly participate in swimming, the same research found.
Public swimming pools became popular in North America in the 1920s and 30s and were initially open to all. However, Northern politicians stipulated a “Whites Only” rule, referencing racist fears about Black men fraternizing with White women.
Even after legal racial segregation ended in the US in 1964, public pools continued to be hostile environments. As people of color began to use public pools, White swimmers retreated to the privacy of their own pools and private clubs, where expensive fees continue to be an economic barrier for Black families who cannot afford the cost.
‘We cannot keep recovering bodies’
And while natural disasters and irregular migration are notorious risk factors, so are lower socioeconomic status, lack of higher education and being a member of an ethnic minority, depending on the country, WHO research shows.
“Most drowning incidents happen when people never intend to get into the water in the first place,” says Dale, who was awarded Swim Teacher of the Year by Swim England in 2021.
Danielle Obe is the co-founder and chair of the BSA. She told CNN Sport that the Costa del Sol deaths prompted her to establish the BSA in March 2020, alongside Olympic swimmer Alice Dearing, journalist Seren Jones and songwriter, rapper and producer Ed Accura.
“This was devastating because these families were actually acquainted to me and they were from my local community,” Obe says. “(At) that point, I called Alice and Seren, and I said, ‘We’ve been talking about doing something for our community. We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to do it now. We cannot keep recovering bodies.'”
“It’s no longer just about that lack of representation,” Obe adds.
“It’s now about saving lives, vital water safety, education for all. Swimming is an intervention. Swimming is a life skill.”
However, there is still a lack of data when it comes to drowning-related deaths by ethnicity in the UK, says Obe.
“At the moment, we don’t know how much of a disparity there is between drowning and fatalities, aquatic fatalities for different communities in the UK because, up until now, drowning data isn’t really captured by ethnicity, which is another point, another issue that the BSA is looking to tackle.”
‘People just don’t think Black people should swim’
“I have been quite torn between the amazing achievement of being the first Black woman to represent GB in swimming but wanting to be my own person, my own athlete, who’s known for being an athlete and not for her race and her sport combined together,” she tells CNN Sport.
“I take the two of them just as they are — kind of like separate things. I’m trying to be the best athlete and best role model that I can be to show people that they can do the sport, that the sport is for everybody.”
At the age of 24, Dearing was making history in Japan and became a beacon of hope for young people — especially Black girls — who wanted to break into the sport.
But her personal triumph also drew attention to the institutional access gap for people of color in swimming.
“Fortunately, for myself, I haven’t come across any barriers at the level I’m at currently,” Dearing says.
“But I have faced barriers when I was younger and issues where people just don’t think Black people should swim, or do swim, or think that we’re better suited to other sports and so shouldn’t even learn to swim or attempt swimming in the first place.”
CNN reached out to the International Swimming Federation (FINA), Sport England and USA Swimming requesting a breakdown of Black and ethnic minority participation in swimming at grassroots and professional levels of the sport. However, they told CNN they were unable to provide such data.
FINA — the global governing body for swimming — told CNN it does not have a breakdown of the ethnicities of swimmers at a grassroots or elite level.
FINA said in 2021 it allocated $6.6 million towards development programs for distribution among all national federations and continental associations, while also pushing for diversity in the sport through its “Swimming for All, Swimming for Life” program.
“FINA remains fully committed to non-discrimination,” the organization said to CNN in a statement. “FINA continues to work hard to ensure that the global aquatics community is a place where all athletes, coaches and administrators are treated equally.
“Work will continue to develop and grow with the support of members of the aquatics community as we strive to be at the forefront of this essential area,” FINA added.
Sport England told CNN in a statement that it is “committed to increasing investment in facilities and organisations across England to try to level up access to good quality sports and activities.”
“Barriers to getting active persist and have even been exacerbated for some disadvantaged groups — like women, people with long-term health conditions, disabled people, people from ethnically diverse communities and lower socio-economic groups,” the statement added.
Sport England said in May it announced further funding that brings its total investment in its 121 partners to more than £550 million ($670 million), which they’ve selected “due to their unique position to tackle entrenched activity inequalities and influence positive change throughout the sector, their own networks and beyond.”
“It’s not all about the economic side of things. It is also about getting people to feel comfortable with putting their kids in swim lessons and in competitive swimming so that they can then go and do other aquatic-based sports,” Joel Shinofield, the managing director of sport development at USA Swimming, told CNN during a phone call.
“Our goal is to facilitate opportunities and make sure they’re good ones. While our clubs are the ones that do that on the local level, the resources, guidance, support, financial investment that we provide can shift who those opportunities can be provided to and more broadly create access,” he added.
Serving underrepresented communities
“That community engagement really is to build trust, accountability and collaboration with disenfranchised communities and the sector,” says Obe.
“Only in understanding these attitudes and understanding some of the barriers that preclude our communities from engaging in aquatics can we begin to drive change.”
Speaking about the program, Obe says: “It’s important for us to inspire confidence with African, Caribbean and Asian communities, and the only way we’re able to do that is to ensure that we understand where these communities are in the first place and understand why they don’t engage in aquatics, why we don’t see the representation pool side and why we don’t even see the representation within some aquatic organizations.”
‘The future is bright’
Dearing says that despite the racial and economic barriers to swimming for African, Caribbean and Asian communities, she’s still optimistic about the changing landscape of the sport.
“I really think if anything is going to change, it’s going to be now, it’s going to be over the next couple of years,” she says. “Each story is different, each person is different and has to be understood in their own way, and there’s nothing wrong with that, that’s just another challenge that we have to face and we’re up for it.
“It’s tough — it’s not a quick fix, but the future is bright.
“I like to feel that I’m giving something back to swimming and, hopefully, giving something to the Black community to hopefully achieve, strive for and change the way that Black people are viewed in swimming and the way Black people view swimming.
“It’s a double-edged sword; I absolutely love doing it. Sometimes, it’s really frightening and daunting, but if I’m trying to make the world a better place, then sometimes you got to step out and scare yourself.”
CNN’s Krystina Shveda contributed to this report.