Alice Dearing was about to make history as the first Black woman to swim for Great Britain in the Olympics in 2021.
Then came the bad news: she couldn’t wear the swim cap she desired.
Dearing collaborated with Soul Cap, a U.K.-based company, to promote its signature product — a swim cap designed for Black hair — in the run-up to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The company had applied to FINA, swimming’s world governing body, a year before to have the cap approved for international competition. However, about a month before Dearing was scheduled to compete in the women’s 10-kilometer marathon swimming event, FINA announced that the cap would be banned because it did not conform to “the natural form of the head,” according to the Associated Press.
“It irritated me. It sent the wrong message to swimmers and the rest of the world, telling us that the sport can only accept a certain version of yourself,” Dearing, co-founder of the Black Swimming Association, wrote in a recent Guardian essay.
However, the swimming federation announced on Friday that it had reversed its decision and approved the Soul Cap for international competition. Dearing, 25, and the company’s owners say it’s one way for officials to make swimming, a predominantly White sport, more accessible to Black people.
FINA’s executive director, Brent Nowicki, told The Washington Post in an email that officials worked with Soul Cap on the product’s design for a year and that he was “delighted” it had won approval.
“At the heart of FINA’s work is promoting diversity and inclusivity, and it is critical that all aquatic athletes have access to appropriate swimwear,” Nowicki said.
According to the Associated Press, Soul Cap was founded in 2017 by entrepreneurs Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen and Michael Chapman after meeting a Black woman with natural hair who was frustrated with her traditional swim cap.
“People used to tell me my hair was ‘too big’ for the cap — never that the cap was too small for my hair,” Dearing explained in a blog post on the company’s website.
Traditional swim caps have long been an impediment for swimmers with thick or curly hair, according to a statement issued by Soul Cap last week. Without a cap that fits them properly, some swimmers avoided competitions or left the sport entirely.
According to the Associated Press, Ahmed-Salawudeen and Chapman submitted their swim cap for approval to be used in international competition in 2020, but FINA rejected their bid in the summer of 2021. FINA officials effectively banned the product from competitive swimming, claiming that the caps were unfit for competition because they did not follow “the natural form of the head” and that “to the best of our knowledge, athletes competing at international events have never used, nor are required to use, caps of such size and configuration.” ”
According to Soul Cap’s website, the rejection “sparked a public discussion around diversity in swimming: about the steps we can take to open up the sport to promote greater accessibility and inclusion at every level.”
Following the backlash, FINA announced that it would reconsider its decision while “understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation,” according to the Associated Press. According to the company, the governing body also apologized and invited Soul Cap to resubmit its product for consideration.
As a result, the decision was reversed late last week. Dearing expressed her relief and excitement about the news in an essay for the Guardian. Hair is “a huge logistical barrier to entering the pool for some communities,” she says, and managing her own has been “a difficult and confidence-diminishing part of my career.”
She hopes that won’t be an issue in the future for her or future swimmers who want to grow out their natural hair.
“As a black woman and professional swimmer who enjoys both braiding and wearing her hair in its natural, afro form, I know just how seismic this change will be,” she wrote in a Guardian essay titled “Finally, there is no ‘wrong’ hair for swimming.”