Despite the irrefutable right of everyone to experience the wonder of the outdoors, cultural barriers still exist.
To discuss these barriers and what more can be done to address the issue, we've teamed up with Phil Young and the Outsiders Project. On a recent trip to Wales, we sat down to discuss these barriers with Omie Dale; an activist, swimming instructor and outdoor swim coach based in London, with a focus on getting more people accessing and enjoying the water.
These past few days, being here and being able to reset my body and my mind and get into the water - I feel so privileged. Not everybody gets that opportunity.
Getting people into the open water or even just the pool, you are really getting people into their most vulnerable state. Not only are they in their swimming costumes, a bit more naked than they usually are, but they are also in a completely different environment. In water you move completely differently than on land. Your body feels completely different. You breathe differently. For me, it is such a privilege that people trust me when they are in that vulnerable state.
When you are swimming in open water, in wild water, you realise how powerful nature is, and how small we are compared to nature.
The water does change how people conceive of themselves. Very often we have tunnel vision of how we should operate on this land, or in life in general. From childhood we are in classrooms writing essays, doing this, doing that. But we actually are part of such a bigger thing. We are part of the whole earth and the world around us, the land that we live on, and the water that surrounds us. To have that notion is so powerful. Engaging with the environment creates that awakening.
When you really have that deep enjoyment and take that joy from different aspects of nature, whether that is going for a hike or swimming in water, it really makes you think about the cycle of nature, and where we are as humans in it. How do we impact different aspects of nature? What can we do to preserve the beauty of these places?
Through swimming I have definitely fostered a much stronger connection to the land that we live on, and the water that surrounds it.
Even though nature is for everyone, it is a very exclusive space. And that can be for a variety of reasons. It could be money, geographical location, land ownership, etcetera. But I definitely think ethnicity plays into it.
Being a person of colour in nature, and claiming it as your own, can be really difficult.
I always felt like, when I was out, I had to present a certain way. I had to be super respectful. Even when I was in the water, I felt like I had to show that I was a great swimmer so I had the same right to be there like every other person.
So many people I take to swim, despite living their whole lives in the UK, have never swam in the sea, or never swam in a river, or never swam in a lake, and don’t know what to expect. They don’t know if they are allowed to do these things, and they have never seen people like them swimming in these places. But when you get them in the water, and you are there enjoying it all with the feeling of cold water on your skin, you can’t really think of anything else apart from how you are moving in the water. There is a liberation in that.
It is quite a liberating experience, because you can’t think about who is watching you, or where you are, or what you look like, but rather just being in the water. So far, touch wood, I have never taken someone in the water and they haven’t enjoyed it. Everyone I have taken it has really been a transformative experience for them, and they have gone again and again and again. And for me, that is a massive thing about claiming the space as our own, and having a right to be there, just like everyone else. To see people who you wouldn't typically see in these situations just being and just enjoying is really strong.
The notion that black people can’t swim is something that I have heard throughout my whole life. My mum heard it, my aunties and uncles heard it, my friends heard it, and I do think it has a lot to answer for in terms of this lack of participation. Not only do people themselves, if they struggle in the water, just think, ‘black people can’t swim anyway, we can’t float’. Or sometimes it creates this situation where people go to other sports where they feel more comfortable. Also, perhaps even worse, is that I have heard it amongst swimming teachers, and aquatic professionals, that they genuinely believe in this myth. I think we are failing such a huge number of people by believing this myth, and feeding into this stereotype, both people of colour and white people who perhaps are teaching these children.
This sort of thinking creates an environment where people think that this is not a space for them. That other sports, where their friends are, or that their family have taken part in more, are for them, and that swimming is more of a middle class sport, or a white person's sport. The more we address this head on, and show that it is a myth, that you can get in the water, and that you will be able to float by the end of this lesson, and be able to swim, is really powerful. And also being that representation so that people can see that they can do that as well.
I have taken so much from swimming my whole life. I have taken joy, friendships, employment, everything really. And for me, it is not enough just to have that joy for myself, but to really make a conscious decision to try to share that with other people, and make it as accessible to other people as possible. Most of the world is made up of water, so when you can swim it, it unlocks a whole new world.
Swimming is like a gateway. Once you unlock it, it opens a whole new world.
Every body of water is different, and even that one body of water is always changing. Being able to experience different parts of water, and different bodies , has made me so aware of how powerful the water is, and how small we are against the water, and how it will always be so much stronger than us. And rather than fighting the water, we have to be at one in the water. That is really important for me. It makes me feel as if every time I go into a new body of water, I have to foster a new connection with that water; understand how it works, understand what I need to do when I am in it. It is all about really respecting the water, respecting how it moves, respecting the things that come with the water; the birds, the fish, the landscape. And I see myself as a very small part of that wider piece.