Alice Dearing, the UK’s first Black Olympic swimmer, wants organizers for the next Games to approve swim caps that better accommodate Black hair.
Dearing is one of four Black people who set up the Black Swim Association in the UK, which aims to make swimming more accessible for ethnic minorities, and told the BBC in 2019 that she understands why Black swimmers would quit over their hair.
One of the barriers many Black women face is a way to swim while maintaining the health of their natural hair. Many swim caps are too small for protective styles such as braids and locs.
"It sounds ludicrous, but it can be really damaging to your self-image and confidence as chlorine wrecks hair,” Dearing told the BBC, “but it's even harder for girls with thicker hair, which the majority of Black girls have."
The International Swimming Federation (FINA) rejected an application by Soul Cap, which makes swim caps designed for Black hair, for approval for Olympic athletes to wear their caps in competitions. FINA said the caps are unsuitable because they don't follow "the natural form of the head."
Following widespread coverage and rallying from the public online, FINA reached out to Soul Cap to apologize and offer them help with their application to become approved for international competition, including the next Olympic Games.
Dearing told BuzzFeed News that she is hopeful that the Black swim caps will eventually be approved.
“I'm really excited,” she said. “I think this will probably go through and go forward and be usable at international competitions. I really hope so.
“I know a lot of people want to be on the right side of history with this. So I'm very optimistic that there's going to be a positive outcome from it.”
Dearing said that a lot of organizations need to be educated and she is glad that they’re listening.
“It's not just being thrown to the side like as potentially it has been done in the past,” she said. “I'm not insinuating that any organization would do this on purpose, but decades ago this stuff wouldn't have been so mainstream, it wouldn't have been so seen and recognized.”
Dearing said she learned to swim at around 5 years old, getting into competitive swimming at the age of 8 after her mom saw an advertisement for a local swimming club.
Dearing and her brother took swimming lessons together and she said watching competitions was a family activity.
“We would record them, rewatch them, like, it was like a proper family thing with me, my mum and one of my brothers,” she said.
Fast-forward a few years and Dearing herself has swum in those competitions and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics. Although she came in 19th place, her participation is still historic as the first Black swimmer for the Team Great Britain.
Dearing also cofounded the Black Swimming Association, which aims to encourage and diversify the people who swim in the UK. Dearing said she wants to give back to the sport as it has given her so much good in her life.
“I want other people to know those opportunities are available to them, and not kind of be pigeonholed into something because of their race or because society thinks that that's what they should do," Dearing said.
Dearing has also become a role model to many. She said it’s not something she thought she could be and said it is surreal. “It's just kind of like, I'm just the girl from Birmingham, just a girl from the Midlands in England,” she said. “So it's something that's kind of crazy. You never really think you're in that position to help influence or help inspire or change someone's life in such a positive way.”
Although Dearing is one of the few Black swimmers known internationally, she said that In the swimming community she was not always the only non-white swimmer.
As she got older she started to hear whispers of people saying that Black people don’t swim and people appeared to be surprised that she swam.
“We always laughed it off because my mum, my mum's from Ghana originally, she grew up swimming and it was part of her lifestyle,” Dearing said. “This isn't just a joke like this is actually affecting people's lives and affecting the choices that they make on a daily basis. That's why I'm so passionate about that.”
Dearing said that while she isn’t very happy with her Olympic performance, she has been getting messages of support.
“Literally everybody else is just like, well done for getting there in the first place, well done for standing up, and having these conversations being part of something that's bigger than yourself and advocating for change,'' she said.
Dearing is one of the athletes participating in Procter & Gamble’s Athletes for Good Fund, which gives 52 athletes $10,000 for initiatives for their local communities.
“It's been so overwhelming, like so many strangers messaged me, too many that I can't even reply to,” she said. “But you know, I can really feel that I'm supported and uplifted by all these people. And it's a feeling that I'll never forget, honestly, it's just so powerful. I'm so honored that people have really taken the time out to support me.”
Dearing said she didn’t get a chance to see any of the live competitions when the Olympics were in the UK, but she is excited for the Paris Games as it is so close to home.
“Obviously, I'm just kind of annoyed and I never appreciated that London 2012 whilst it was around, but having kind of, like, a kind of a second chance with Paris ... I'm really excited for, hopefully, that opportunity to compete as an athlete there as well.”