Women's Sports: Team GB swimmer Alice Dearing speaks to GMSW about increasing diversity and training for Tokyo 2020

GMSW Alice Dearing

This year, Team GB swimmer Alice Dearing could have become a full-time professional athlete, having finished her undergraduate degree in Politics at Loughborough.

Instead, she’s decided to juggle training and her goal of qualifying for Tokyo 2020 with a Masters degree.

When not studying, Dearing is one of the country’s leading marathon swimmers and her main event is a ten-kilometre open water swim – that’s six miles in choppy water at the mercy of the elements – but Dearing does most of her training in the pool. 

Her alarm goes off at around four in the morning so she can train before heading into university (or chilling – we spoke during her summer holidays). Dearing says no one day looks the same, but her general training involves stretching and mobility followed by a two-hour swim. She then adds in a gym session post-swim twice a week. Dearing then turns her attention elsewhere before returning to the pool in the afternoon or evening.

Having had the option to focus solely on her swimming, why did Dearing choose to continue studying? She says she’s used to juggling everything now, she even enjoys it: “It's really good for my mind to have something else to put my energy into because personally, I've found if I’m just swimming I can get quite obsessive over it.”

Using her platform for good

Dearing’s Masters is in social media and political communication, a new course to Loughborough that she chose because “it's literally perfect for me – the combination of social media and politics is what I'm really interested in." 

As Dearing talks it’s clear that she's a natural communicator already. She shot into the news over the summer after writing about her experience as the only black swimmer on Team GB for gal-dem and she says she decided to open up about her experience to draw attention to the lack of diversity in swimming ahead of the Olympics.

She says: “I thought I better start trying to gain traction and ground for it now instead of potentially qualifying for the Olympics and only then being like: ‘By the way, there's this massive disparity in the amount of black people or ethnic minorities who don't swim.’

"It would be a lot harder to get the message out without having the background coverage on it. I was thinking this is probably the best chance I'll get to use my voice so I need to prepare for that.”

Dearing says she was scared to speak out at first: “Because swimming being obviously so white, people might just think I'm making excuses and that's not what I want to give off at all. I just want to be like: ‘Yeah I might be the only black swimmer now but who's to say that can't change.’ I just want to try and help push that forward, I don't want to be seen as a victim in any way – I'm trying to use my voice for good.” 

The response to her article was hugely positive, in fact, she says: “It was better than I ever imagined.” Dearing says it’s also helped that there have been lots of people supporting her: “It's taken the daunting-ness away if that's the word.”  

Alice Dearing

Having a role model like Dearing is going to be invaluable in increasing diversity in swimming – Dearing is only the second black woman to swim for Team GB, following in the slipstream of Achieng Ajulu-Bushell who was the first to compete in 2010. That said, Dearing says lots of work needs to be done to increase participation and it needs to start in schools and among young children.

She says : “A lot of black children and even black adults don't know how to swim due to cultural things like the whole stereotype that they're too heavy for the water, which has been disproven but it's still held by black people and even in some cases I've heard swimming instructors say that black people can't swim because they're too heavy. It's just false.”

As well as damaging stereotypes, Dearing says there are also practical considerations for a lack of participation: “The annoying thing about swimming lessons is that they are so expensive. For black families who I think earn less on average, that's another thing which will discourage especially poorer black families and ethnic minorities from learning to swim. If you don't see swimming as something that's meant for you or your race, you're not going to put money or effort into it.”

Dearing says that lots of people are working to change this but it’s going to take time: “It's definitely not something that's going to happen overnight – it's a good few years of just encouraging more people to get into swimming.”

For Dearing, the lack of diversity and being black isn’t something that she noticed much growing up: “I was actually quite blissfully unaware of it.” She says that she’s had a racist comment from a coach once but she tends to forget that she’s black when she’s at the pool: “My identity when I'm at the pool is a swimmer, I see that the same as everyone – we’re swimmers.”

In reality, Dearing says she used to stand out because she was small for a swimmer and that was the focus of most comments about her: “I never really thought: ‘Oh I'm too black to swim or I'm not white enough to swim.’ It was never that way inclined, it was always to do with height for me because that's what people always pointed out like: ‘Oh you're quite small for a swimmer.’ That was always the focus.” 

The importance of role models like Dearing is evident through the response to another piece she was involved in highlighting how it can be difficult caring for afro hair as a swimmer because chemicals in the pool can be much more damaging than they are to non-afro hair.

Dearing says: “I had loads of people want to follow me on Instagram and it was quite shocking – I didn't know what that one little piece of writing could do. I had loads of people messaging me being like: ‘My daughter’s black and she has the same issues as you with her hair, what swimming caps would you suggest?’ It was nice that I could help and give my experience to someone.”

An Olympic goal

As Dearing herself recognises, qualifying for the Olympics would give her an even bigger platform, so how is she finding the pressure of training for Tokyo 2020? Dearing says she’s not sure: “I haven't tried to emphasize it too much because I don't want to get caught up in it and put pressure and anxiety on myself. I've really been trying to keep grounded and take each race as it comes.”

She adds: “Obviously I'd be heartbroken if I didn't qualify but to keep myself grounded I can't get too wrapped up in it.”

Dearing explains that there is one place up for grabs for a Team GB swimmer after no Brit placed in the top ten at the World Championships this summer where two places were on offer per nationality – Dearing placed 17th with a time of 1 hour 55 minutes 9 seconds, only 15 seconds off the lead. Now she is working towards the World Cup in Doha taking place in the New Year where Team GB will select who can compete in the next Olympic qualification championships.

It’s a complicated process, Dearing explains: “Obviously the ideal would have been top ten at worlds so qualification is done and then I could just focus on getting to the Olympics and competing there as well as I can but because that didn't happen it’s Plan B now and having to work through highs and lows of trying to qualify again.”  

Alice Dearing

What advice would she give to people who are inspired to take up swimming after hearing her story?

Dearing is keen to emphasize the need for safety: “Go to the pool and especially if you've never swum before try to get lessons there. Please don't go in by yourself without someone there to help you or just watch over because it can be so dangerous especially if you're scared of the water. A woman told me, a black woman, how she taught herself to swim, which is incredible, so it can be done. But for the first few times try and go with a friend and try and slowly get into it.”

News Now - Sport News