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Trailblazer Alice Dearing believes becoming the first black female swimmer to represent Great Britain at an Olympic Games can finally shatter the ‘cultural and institutional racism’ that has plagued the sport for ‘decades’, writes Will Jennings.
Dearing, from Oldbury, blazed a trail on Friday as she was officially selected in Team GB’s marathon swimming squad set to compete at Tokyo 2020.
The 24-year-old will become the first black female swimmer to represent her country at the Olympics and just the third of either sex after Kevin Burns and Paul Marshall at Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980.
Dearing has encountered a string of racial abuse during her searing rise in the water but booked her place on the plane by finishing fourth in last week’s crucial Portugal qualifier.
She’s now entering a terrain no black female swimmer has ever set foot in and hopes her landmark selection can prove a long-overdue watershed.
Dearing, who trains at Loughborough University, said: “I’m really happy that I’ve been the person to break this barrier.
“It’s a really exciting moment for myself, black history and black culture. But it is such a shame it took until 2021 to get to this point.
“To have a 40-year delay to get a woman on the team is a shame, but at the same time I feel that it’s a barrier that has obviously been broken.
“Now, we can really start to take steps to move forward, both in the aquatic community, the black community and around the word to make sure this doesn’t become an issue again – and to get more black people into swimming.
“It’s decades of cultural and institutional racism which has sadly seeped into the swimming community, and swimming in general, for quite some time.
“Back in the 1960s I’ve seen those images of a black woman in a swimming pool and a white man pouring acid into the pool while she’s there, and there were instances where black people were just outright banned from swimming pools.
“So it’s not really a surprise that we get to the 21st century and we see these issues occurring, and there’s a lag of black people in swimming, because it’s just been decades and decades of historical and cultural racism.
“I hope things can start to move forward and people can look at swimming and think it’s not just a sport meant for people of a certain race. It’s not exclusive for anybody, it’s inclusive, and black people can swim.”
Dearing was crowned world junior champion in 2016 and capped a scintillating rise by finishing fourth out of 47 swimmers at last weekend’s qualifying event in Portugal.
That earned Team GB a women’s marathon swimming quota spot for Japan and just five days later, Dearing’s seat on the plane was secure.
Dearing hopes her history-making exploits can transform perceptions and inspire more young black girls to take to the pool for the first time.
“I really hope they can look at it and realise there are so many sports out there available to them,” she added.
“You don’t just have to go into athletics or basketball or whatever the stereotypes are surrounding black people in sport. There’s so much more open to you – there are so many other sports where barriers are yet to be open or historically, certain races are just not expected to be of it.
“I’m really hoping that people look at me and think: ‘I’ll just go and learn to swim 25 metres.’
“You don’t have to go and be an Olympian or Olympic champion or anything like that – it’s just a basic life skill that I think everybody has a right to learn.”
Shattering decades of history is one thing but soaring to success in Japan would catapult Dearing to a whole new level of sporting immortality.
This summer’s showpiece will be different but she hopes the ascending the podium in Tokyo can further capture the hearts of the nation back home.
“Regardless of their race, being Olympic champion is incredible, but breaking a barrier on top of that just helps add to the history,” said Dearing, whose exploits in Tokyo will be broadcast live on Eurosport and discovery+.
“For the younger generation it is so important to see women like that stand on the top stage and swim the house down, and do some incredible things.
“It has been quite heavy sometimes and quite a bit of pressure, but I’ve just enjoyed every bit of it that’s come.
“I’ve just had to roll with it, and I’ve just seen it as a positive thing that people are backing me to do something quite incredible and help change a narrative that has surrounded a race of people for so many centuries.”
Stream every unmissable moment of Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 live on discovery+, The Streaming Home of the Olympics.