Omie Dale has fond memories of splashing in the sea as a child, of racing through water parks and swimming in backwaters and rivers.
“There’s so much joy that can be had once you learn to swim, once you’ve abandoned those fears and you can get in the water,” the 25-year-old Dale, who is based in southeast London, tells CNN Sport.
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.”
A history of exclusion
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.
She is a director of Swimunity, a collective offering free swimming lessons to women and children in North Kensington, West London.
It was born in the wake of the Grenfell Tower disaster in 2017, when a residential block caught on fire, killing 72 people – and leaving many more without homes.
“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.”
While 77% of children from the most affluent families in England can swim 25 meters unaided, only 34% from the least affluent families can, according to a 2021 survey from Sport England, a non-departmental public body that fosters grassroots sports in England.
About 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children in England do not regularly participate in swimming, according to Sport England’s report, published in January 2020.
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.
This trend extends to the US, where nearly 64% of Black children have “low” or no ability to swim, compared with 40% of their White peers, according to 2017 data from the country’s national governing body for the sport at a competitive level, USA Swimming.
The underrepresentation of Black people in the pool in the US can be traced back to the early 20th century.
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.
Similar examples in Britain illustrate how racial and class inequalities lead to the systemic exclusion of Black people in pools. For example, more than 4.2 million people in the UK live in ethnically diverse communities where Covid-19 national lockdowns resulted in the closure or mothballing of pools, according to Swim England – England’s national swimming governing body – and the Black Swimming Association (BSA), a UK-based charity that aims to encourage more African, Caribbean and Asian communities to take up swimming.
‘We cannot keep recovering bodies’
Globally, drowning is the third leading cause of accidental injury-related death and at least 236,000 people die each year from drowning, according to 2019 data from the World Health Organization (WHO). Children are particularly affected, with drowning being one of the top five causes of death for those aged 1-14 years in 48 of 85 countries studied by the WHO.
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.
In December 2019, three members of the same Black British family – a 53-year-old father and his two children – died in a swimming pool at a resort in Costa del Sol, Spain, Reuters reported. The father and his 16-year-old son had reportedly leapt into the water to try to save his nine-year-old daughter, who was drowning.
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’
Dearing, the first Black female swimmer to represent Britain at the Olympics when she competed at Tokyo 2020, “implores” people to learn to 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.