TOKYO – Alice Dearing has an afro, a voluminous puff nearly impossible to protect in most swimming caps. Her hair shrinks if it gets wet. And the chlorine? The chemicals in a pool can cause severe damage that requires substantial time and money to treat.
The first Black female swimmer on Britain’s Olympic team uses the the Soul Cap, an extra-large silicone covering designed specifically to protect dreadlocks, weaves, hair extensions, braids, and thick and curly hair. But Dearing has been forbidden from using the cap in her Olympic debut next week in the women's 10k marathon swim.
FINA, which oversees international competitions in swimming, rejected the application from the British makers of the Soul Cap for use in the Tokyo Games, citing no previous instance in which swimmers needed “caps of such size and configuration.” It also wondered if the cap could create an advantage by disrupting the flow of water.
On social media and in Black swimming circles, the outcry was swift and the conversation went on for days. A Change.org petition was launched and Dearing, an ambassador for the cap and co-founder of the Black Swimming Association, openly expressed disappointment.
For people of color, this was so much more than a ban on a swimming cap. Dismissing it represented yet another injustice.
It’s been five years since the Rio Games, when American Simone Manuel became the first Black female swimmer to win Olympic gold. Since then, there has been little uptick in swimmers of color at the elite level.
Like Dearing, Donta Katai of Zimbabwe is the first Black swimmer to represent her country. And at almost any meet at the international level, swimmers of color are extremely rare. The U.S. team has only two black females, Manuel and Natalie Hinds.
Those familiar with the situation say the reasons for that shortage — and the racism behind them — run deep in history.
Neither Manuel nor Hinds understands the dismissal of the Soul Cap. Both Americans have sponsorship from other companies that make caps to protect their hair, but they were disappointed that a cap made by a Black-owned business specifically to aid swimmers of color was outlawed.
“It doesn’t do the best for inclusivity in the sport," Manuel said.
The tenuous relationship between Black people and water goes back a long way. In the era of segregation in the United States, Black swimmers were barred from pools; those that did permit swimmers of color were often unsafe and neglected.
“The predominance of white athletes in swimming is a key example of a racial disparity in sport that can be linked to histories of institutional racism,” said Claire Sisco King, an associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University and editor of the Women’s Studies in Communication international journal.
Accessibility to public pools is another barrier, King notes, and wealth inequality makes an often expensive sport like swimming inaccessible. She said the banning of the Soul Cap “risks perpetuating the racist assumption that Black athletes don’t belong in the sport of swimming.”
According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of Black children do not know how to swim compared to 40% of white American children. Additionally, 79% of children in American families that earn less than $50,000 a year do not know how to swim.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that between 1999 and 2010, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for Black swimmers was significantly higher than white swimmers; for every white child between 5 and 18 years old who drowned, 5.5 Black children drowned.
Danielle Obe co-founded, with Dearing, the Black Swimming Association not long after the 2019 Christmas Eve drowning of a father and two children while on holiday in Spain.
“We just thought, we've got to do something for our community,” Obe said. After conversations with Swimming World magazine, she found that 95% of Black adults in London do not swim and 80% of Black children leave primary school not yet able to swim.
Said Obe: “We thought the only way to get more Alice Dearings in the pool, with Alice being Black and among the 5% in the water, we had to reduce the 95% not in the water."
ROOTS OF THE SOUL CAP
Dearing is among the Black swimmers who balance love of the water with the difficulties of protecting hair.
Obe suspects Dearing will have her afro braided into cornrows in order to use an approved cap in the marathon swim, but Dearing had been using the Soul Cap. It was created by schoolmates Toks Ahmed and Michael Chapman, who both did not learn how to swim until their late 20s.
“The perception has always been that swimming isn’t for Black people; my mom doesn’t swim, Michael’s mom doesn’t swim, none of our friends swim," Ahmed said, "and it was like, ‘This is nuts, — we need to learn how to swim.’”
A woman in the class struggled to keep her bathing cap on her head, which sparked the Soul Cap idea.
“We both wondered why there wasn’t swim caps made to accommodate that more voluminous hair and afro textures and bigger hair,” Ahmed said. “We spoke to our moms and our sisters and they both all said, to be fair, a big barrier to swimming is the fact our hair gets soaked, we haven’t got a swimming cap that works.”
What they thought would be a niche product received such favorable feedback that the duo realized “we were filling a gap, providing something that removed a barrier to women and children who did not want to swim.”
In 2017 they self-funded 150 black extra-large caps, another 60 in burgundy, and are now taking orders for about 25,000 caps. The caps started with the two understated colors; then they were contacted by open-water swimmers who needed brighter hues. Then came queries from swimmers who didn’t have full afros and wanted the caps in smaller sizes.
The attention created by the federation's rejection has been effective, though Dearing wasn't available to talk about it. Her team wouldn't make her available for comment until after her Aug. 4 competition.
SUCCESS CAUSING CHANGE
Manuel and Hinds were part of the bronze medal-winning 4x100 meter freestyle relay and Manuel, a four-time medalist, made history when she won gold in the 100-meter free at Rio.
Black swimmers' success can be a change agent, but there must also be specific steps toward creating more interest and opportunity, said Shontel Cargill, a former competitive swimmer who is Black. She is now a therapist and assistant clinic director at Thriveworks in Cumming, Georgia.
“Due to the discriminatory and segregated past of swimming, Black families have been taught to fear swimming instead of embrace it,” Cargill said.
FINA is now in talks with Soul Cap and said in a statement it will review the application again later this year. The governing body said it is “understanding of the importance of inclusivity and representation,” and the review of the Soul Cap and similar products "are part of wider initiatives aimed at ensuring there are no barriers to participation in swimming, which is both a sport and a vital life skill.”
The federation's swimwear approval committee chairman “is fully aware of the cultural issues that Soul Cap has raised, and we are reviewing the process,” Brent Nowicki, an American named executive director of FINA in June, said Saturday.
Ahmed feels encouraged after conversations with Nowicki, who he said was “quite apologetic for the way the application was handled."
“I think it's testament that if there was more representation at that level, and more representation at the approval process, someone might have said ‘Hey, let’s consider this because there are people out there who want to swim competitively, but don't want to cut their hair down short and maybe don't want to compromise,'" Ahmed said. "It's just about giving people an option."
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