This year, our Rainbow Laces campaign is celebrating the impact sport has on LGBT+ people, and the impact that LGBT+ people have on sport. In this blog, Omie Dale discusses the many benefits of swimming and the need for more diversity in aquatics.
When I say I’ve been involved with swimming since before I was born, I’m not exaggerating – my mum started at the pool with my brother when she was pregnant with me, and I later took adult and baby lessons with her. I swam regularly until I was about sixteen, then qualified as a lifeguard and later as a swimming teacher. Swimming has given me so much – employment, friendships and both physical and mental health benefits. Since this sport has always been part of my life, being in the water is almost second nature to me.
Swimming has given me so much – employment, friendships and both physical and mental health benefits.
This year, the impact of lockdown and increased restrictions meant that I began swimming outdoors more than usual. Whereas I normally transfer to the comfort of warm water in leisure centres after the last of the summer months, this time around I decided to continue swimming outside into the winter. Significant drops in air and water temperature made it a completely different experience. Cold water immersion is invigorating, and quickly becomes addictive.
Swimming in a pool can’t compete with swimming in the open water – even in the UK, where the weather can be unpredictable and the water is often far from crystal clear. After having such a positive experience, I signed up to become a swim host for mental health swims. These are organised for and by people with lived mental health experiences who want to meet and enjoy sessions in the open water.
Throughout my time in aquatics, I’ve been aware that there’s a typical idea of what a swimmer ‘should’ look like.
Throughout my time in aquatics, I’ve been aware that there’s a typical idea of what a swimmer ‘should’ look like. This is the one that is almost exclusively represented in the media, the professional industry, and the sport at competitive and grassroots levels – and as a mixed-Black member of the LGBT+ community, I often feel very detached from this image.
Growing up, I never saw anyone that looked, or identified, like me in the pool – not my teachers, not other swimmers, nor those I saw on the television. While the situation is gradually improving, the fact that it exists can create a very strong feeling of being the ‘other’ for anybody who doesn’t fit the stereotype. And, more than that, it can lead to a feeling of not belonging in the sport in the same way that others do.
Swimming requires a great deal of vulnerability in a variety of ways – from the clothing we wear for the pool, to the fact that we operate in a completely different environment to those who play their sports on land. There are also numerous barriers to getting into the water and learning how to swim, including cost, time, location and hair care – but a major one I’ve noticed is representation. While the swimming community is welcome, open and friendly, we definitely need to have serious conversations about why the sport is still so unrepresentative.
But, despite that stereotypical image of a swimmer, the swimming community is becoming increasingly diverse. Through the power of social media and swimming meets, I’ve managed to meet supportive groups of swimmers, many of whom are LGBT+. Swimming is a social sport, so it’s great to meet people who can relate to your experiences in more ways than one. That said, we all need to do more to celebrate different identities and make everybody feel welcome in the sport.
At a time when it feels like some people think our identities are up for debate, the pool, sea, river, lake – wherever you choose to swim – can be a place to reconnect to your senses. When the world feels full of doom, or even when I am personally burdened with stress, I use the water as a way to disconnect from my worries and simply be in my body.
Swimming gives me so much joy, and I want others to share this with others.
Swimming gives me so much joy, and I want others to share this with others. By acting as a swim host for mental health swims, I hope I’m providing community and helping to break down barriers by being openly and authentically myself. Far from being the only person like me in the water, I want my swim sessions to make everyone feel welcome. And if I could encourage just one more person to have a go at swimming, I think it would be a job well done.