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Olympic swimmer wins fight to reverse ban on cap made for Black hair

Alice Dearing says she’s relieved, excited in essay titled ‘Finally, there is no “wrong” hair for swimming’

Alice Dearing of Britain exits the water after finishing the women’s marathon swimming event at the Summer Games in Tokyo. (David Goldman/AP)

Alice Dearing was about to make history in summer 2021 as the first Black woman to swim for Great Britain at the Olympics.

Then, bad news: She couldn’t wear the swim cap she wanted to.

Leading up to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Dearing worked with U.K.-based company Soul Cap to promote its signature product — a swim cap designed for Black hair. The year before, the company had applied to swimming’s world governing body, FINA, to approve the cap for international competition. But about a month before Dearing was set to compete in the women’s 10-kilometer marathon swimming event, FINA announced it was banning the cap, saying the design didn’t mold to “the natural form of the head,” the Associated Press reported.

“It frustrated me. It sent the wrong message to swimmers and the world, telling us that the sport can only accommodate a certain version of yourself,” Dearing, the co-founder of the Black Swimming Association, wrote in a recent essay for the Guardian.

But on Friday, the swimming body announced it had reversed its decision by approving the Soul Cap for international competition. Dearing, 25, and the company’s owners said it’s one way that officials can make swimming — a predominantly White sport — more accessible to Black people.

Brent Nowicki, FINA’s executive director, told The Washington Post in an email that officials worked with Soul Cap over the past year on the product’s design and that he was “delighted” it had won approval.

“Promoting diversity and inclusivity is at the heart of FINA’s work, and it is very important that all aquatic athletes have access to the appropriate swimwear,” Nowicki said.

In 2017, entrepreneurs Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen and Michael Chapman launched Soul Cap after meeting a Black woman with natural hair who was struggling with her conventional swim cap, the AP reported.

Dearing could relate: “People used to tell me my hair was ‘too big’ for the cap — never that the cap was too small for my hair,” she said in a blog post on the company’s website.

Conventional swim caps have long been an obstacle for swimmers with thick or curly hair, Soul Cap said last week in a statement. Without a cap that fits them properly, some swimmers avoided competitions or left the sport entirely.

In 2020, Ahmed-Salawudeen and Chapman submitted their swim cap for approval to be used in international competition, and in the summer of 2021, FINA rejected their bid, the AP reported. In effectively banning the product from competitive swimming, FINA officials said that the caps weren’t fit for competition because they didn’t follow “the natural form of the head” and that to their “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration.”

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,” Soul Cap said on its website.

After the backlash, FINA announced it was reviewing its decision while “understanding the importance of inclusivity and representation,” according to the AP. The governing body also apologized and invited Soul Cap to resubmit its product for consideration, the company said.

That led to the reversal late last week. In her essay for the Guardian, Dearing said she was “relieved and excited” by the news. Hair is “a huge logistical barrier to entering the pool for some communities” and managing her own so that she could swim has been “a difficult and confidence-diminishing part of my career.”

She hopes that’s no longer an issue — not for her and not for future swimmers who want to grow out their natural hair.

“As a black woman and professional swimmer who loves both having her hair braided and wearing it in its natural, afro form, I know just how seismic this change will be,” she said in the Guardian essay, titled “Finally, there is no ‘wrong’ hair for swimming.”