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Increasing cultural diversity within outdoor swimming for positive change within communities
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What started out as an adult learn to swim project has become a comprehensive development programme that enables women from marginalised communities to learn a new life skill, develop self-confidence, grow community, expand support networks, and access limitless opportunities for themselves and their families.

Making physical activity accessible for a more diverse audience is not a new challenge. With regards to swimming in the UK, the sport presents a set of complex, practical and historic barriers, tied up in negative stigmas and perceptions about many of the diverse communities the sport seeks to engage. Lack of inclusive spaces, shortage of pools, pressure on swimming pool timetabling, cultural considerations around access, swimming attire and body confidence are all substantial issues that require time and resource.

Historically, as the Black Swimming Association (BSA) highlights, people of African, Caribbean and Asian heritage have been precluded from the world of aquatics. The barriers that these communities face is often entrenched and complex, which has resulted in a lack of education in water safety, drowning prevention and a negative perception of swimming.

The diversity statistics echo this narrative. According to Sport England, 95% of Black adults and 80% of Black children do not swim in England. 1 in 4 children who complete their primary education are unable to swim. According to the WHO, the risk of drowning is higher amongst minority ethnic communities. Consequently, these statistics impact on those accessing outdoor swimming.

If we look at the workforce, there is similarly a lack of diverse representation among swim teachers, coaches, and lifeguards, which is also reflected at elite athlete level. Fortunately, the BSA is working hard nationally to address these issues. Their Ambassador, Alice Dearing, is an inspiring role model and uses her platform as an elite open water swimmer to change perceptions and films such as Blacks Can’t Swim have challenged the negative stigmas that people from diverse communities may have concerning water and swimming in general.

In and around Bristol, the local outdoor swimming community is incredibly welcoming, and following numerous visits to other regions, this is indicative of open water swimming around the UK. Comments can often be heard from outdoor swimmers about the lack of diversity, trying to understand the barriers and work out what can be done to make it more appealing.

Open Minds Active is a social impact organisation based in Bristol, UK. Our mission is to increase access to the outdoors for all and to improve mental and physical wellbeing. A key part of this work is to promote outdoor activities, such as open water swimming and a connection with nature, to those who might not normally have means or access. Through targeted outreach and working with community organisations and groups, we work to address barriers and challenge stigmas.

Not being able to swim is the biggest barrier of all, hence the first initiative Open Minds Active launched was the adult learn to swim programme, recognising that women were particularly affected due to the lack of women-only sessions, especially for the Muslim community.

The initial consultation process with local women highlighted the shame many felt at not being able to swim, despite their desperation to learn. They were motivated to learn so they could swim with friends and also take their children swimming. Those who could swim a little felt unwelcome or out of place at their local swimming pool. When they did pluck up the courage to go to a women-only session, it was often too busy or staffed by a male lifeguard, resulting in them leaving feeling despondent.

The community swim programme was founded by Maggy Blagrove and Wafa Suliman. Wafa, a Muslim woman and former professional swimmer in her home country of Sudan, understands the cultural barriers many women face around swimming, whereas Maggy has run sport for development initiatives in communities for over 15 years both in the UK and abroad. Wafa is passionate about the impact of the project: “This work is incredibly important, so many women in our community have never been given the opportunity to swim, despite living in the UK a long time. The sessions are more than just swimming, we support each other and encourage generations of women from within the same family to do something for themselves.”

The methodology and approach of this initiative is rooted in community empowerment, addressing local issues with local resource by local people. Initially, Wafa and Maggy facilitated extensive outreach work with underrepresented groups, particularly within the refugee and asylum seeker community in Bristol. But, once engaged, the participants themselves shaped the programme and encouraged others to get involved. Participants become peer mentors, advocating for others within the community, allaying fears, discussing expectations around the space itself, what to wear, transportation and the style of coaching.

This took time, moving gently at the speed of trust. In community work, time building relationships, reassurance and nurturing safe spaces is always time well spent. This, coupled with Wafa’s own lived experience as a Muslim woman and elite swimmer in Sudan, was invaluable to the programme’s success. Partnership working with key local community organisations, such as Aid Box Community, Bridges for Communities, supportive venues, and funders whose values and mission were similarly aligned, created strong referral pathways and wrap-around support.

Aside from the lengthy development process, there were additional complications to contend with involving COVID-19 and pool access. Sessions were due to start in March 2020, but were postponed until restrictions lifted. Swimming pools struggled to reopen, and some even shut their doors for good. After contacting 27 swimming pools across the city, a 2-hour slot at Hengrove Leisure Centre materialised, offering a private space for the women, and the sessions finally started with a group of 12 women in June 2020. The whole swim teaching team created an ethos that was safe and fun, facilitating a space where the women felt relaxed and supported. 

The women loved it, and the feedback was incredibly positive. Word spread amongst the community and the sessions expanded rapidly. Fast forward to summer of 2022, and over 70 women have been through the learn to swim programme and there are now over 40 on the waiting list. The latest challenge is to find additional pool time for the improvers who want to advance their swim skills. Women are signposted to women-only swim sessions around the city, but these are sadly lacking. They often run at strange times of day or staffed by male lifeguards.

Outdoor swimming provides a welcome solution to lack of pool access and is popular during the summer months when groups of women are introduced to local lakes in and around Bristol. This brings with it additional challenges around securing women-only spaces in public or large outdoor venues. Partnership working and collaboration with a local lake owner has secured space at West Country Water Park on the outskirts of Bristol. This is one of the first open water venues in the region to actively promote women only spaces.

Preparation with the women in the pool was key to building confidence and the skills needed for open water. Most of the women had never considered open water swimming and found the concept terrifying, others were eager to try. Each woman had their own fascinating story to tell about their swimming journey. One grandmother from Pakistan wanted to come to our sessions as she had swum in rivers there as a child. As she entered the water and began swimming, supported by one of our coaches, she beamed with delight. Her two daughters remarked at how joyful it was to see their mother so relaxed and enjoying herself. She had lived in Bristol for decades and had never had the opportunity to swim. She and her daughters are now keen to continue swimming all through autumn and winter to experience the health benefits of the cold water. Another lady of Ghanaian heritage wanted to swim outdoors to improve her mental health, but at 51, she could not swim. After 7 months on the learn to swim programme, she finally ventured into the lake and swam all winter. She now welcomes the new swimmers to the group as a volunteer.

Initially, for many women, the weekly swim session was their only outlet for physical activity. Over time, women engaged in the pool sessions have gained confidence to try outdoor swimming and access other activities. Some now swim with the programme twice a week and others have even learned to surf as part of another initiative with the Wave Inland Surf venue. For them, learning to swim has not only been a crucial life skill, but has equipped them with knowledge and skills to swim safely outdoors. It has expanded their social networks, cemented friendships, and given them confidence to access all kinds of other water-based activities and opportunities. In addition, 10 of the women will start their Assistant Swim Teacher Level 1 this autumn, plus most of the women are now taking their families swimming and educating their children about outdoor swimming, water safety and the benefits of getting outdoors and being in nature.

What essentially started out as an adult learn to swim project has become a comprehensive development programme that enables women, often from marginalised communities, to learn a new life skill, develop self-confidence, grow community, expand support networks, plus access limitless opportunities for themselves and their families across Bristol. This has been achieved by spending more time on understanding local context and need, prioritising social bonding, building group dynamics, and understanding deep rooted issues, before even thinking about swimming.

There is still much work to be done to address the inequities for others who are unable to access swimming for all kinds of reasons and we continue to break down those barriers. The aspiration is to continue to play our small part locally, foster connections with similar initiatives nationally and beyond, so we can share and learn from each other. The hope is that, in time, swimming will reflect the vibrant and diverse communities in which we live, enabling everyone to reap the mental, physical, and social benefits of such an enjoyable activity.

______________________________________________________________________________

Maggy Blagrove is the Director and Founder of Open Minds Active, a Bristol-based social impact organisation whose mission is to promote positive mental and physical wellbeing for all through wild swimming and the great outdoors. Alongside a Masters in International Development, Maggy is a qualified teacher, open water swimming coach, beach lifeguard and netball coach. With over 20 years of experience working in sport and communities, she has developed various international and national projects. She has led programmes in the Middle East and Africa using sport to build resilience, and in the UK using sport as a tool to engage disadvantaged youth and marginalised communities.

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United Kingdom
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Europe
Sport
Swimming
Sustainable Development Goals
4 – Quality education
10 – Reduced inequalities
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