For many years, there was one kind of swim cap. It was ultratight, made of latex or silicone — and it was “one size fits all.”
But those swim caps left out large groups of swimmers, adding to structural inequities that often keep people of color out of the pool.
Many swimmers have celebrated recent advances in swim cap technology. Several brands, including Soul Cap, Swimma, and Swimmie Caps, have introduced options with more flexible material that vary in size, accommodating swimmers with hair that is larger and more textured than their White competitors’.
One of the brands, Soul Cap, submitted their product to the International Swimming Federation (FINA) for approval, so Olympians could wear their caps at the 2021 Olympic Games.
FINA denied the request.
The organization said the design does not fit “the natural form of the head.” To the best of their knowledge, they added, “the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require … caps of such size and configuration.”
The decision could further discourage Black people, and especially Black women, from competing in an overwhelmingly White sport, said Maritza Correia McClendon, a 2004 Olympic silver medalist and the first Black woman from the United States to set an American and world swimming record. As a young swimmer, she said, her hair was a major barrier, stripped of its natural oils in a chlorinated pool and stuffed into a cap that didn’t fit. By rejecting a cap that recognizes and affirms Black swimmers, she said, FINA is sending a clear message: “You don’t belong.”
“We are extremely disappointed to learn about FINA’s decision,” Danielle Obe, co-founder of the Black Swimming Association, said in a statement. “It’s one we believe will no doubt discourage many younger athletes from ethnic minority backgrounds from pursuing competitive swimming.”
In a statement issued Friday, FINA acknowledged the “comments and reactions” to their decision and said they are “reviewing the situation.”
“FINA is committed to ensuring that all aquatics athletes have access to appropriate swimwear for competition where this swimwear does not confer a competitive advantage.” (FINA did not respond to a request for comment from The Lily.)
As an activity, swimming doesn’t feel accessible to many Black families, McClendon said. Sixty-four percent of Black kids don’t learn how to swim, compared to 40 percent of White kids. In swimming pools, Black children ages 10-14 years drown at rates 7.6 times higher than White children, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The reasons for that disparity date back centuries, said Noelle Ndiaye, a swim coach and founder of AfroSwimmers, an organization that promotes diversity in swimming. White enslavers in the United States didn’t want enslaved people to learn how to swim, she said: “If we could swim, we could get away.”
While many towns built public swimming pools in the 20th century, they were largely off limits to Black people. During the Jim Crow era, if a Black person happened to take a dip, Ndiaye said, the pools were sometimes drained and doused in acid.
Today, many Black families lack easy access to public pools, which tend to be clustered in mostly White areas, said McClendon, now the chairwoman of the Black Leadership in Aquatics Coalition, a committee designed to help more Black people access the world of elite swimming. Many Black parents just don’t think about teaching their kids how to swim, McClendon added, because they were never taught themselves. As a kid, she said, you need that introduction to swimming before you can consider swimming competitively.
Only two of the 26 women on the 2021 Olympic swim team are Black.
To change those numbers, Ndiaye said, swim organizations need to do more to dismantle the structural barriers that exist for Black competitors and other competitors of color. Swim caps are a good place to start, she said.
When she was first starting to compete in middle school, Ndiaye’s swim cap came off in the middle of a race. Her long, curly hair covered her face, she said, so she couldn’t see her lane. Stepping out of the pool, she said, all the White competitors were staring at her. Mortified, she said, she sought out her mom and cried.
“Your hair just doesn’t fit in these caps,” she said. She suffered from headaches all through high school, she said, because her caps were too tight.
Ndiaye tried her first Soul Cap in 2018. When she put it on for the first time, she said, she felt like a queen. The cap was her crown.
“It makes me feel comfortable in my own skin. It makes me feel proud that I love my hair.” Now, she says, people are constantly asking where she got her cap.
When Ndiaye heard about FINA’s decision to prohibit the Soul Cap at the Olympics, she said, she was furious. There is no evidence that the Soul Cap provides any kind of competitive advantage, she said.
“It’s 2021,” she said. “Why are we still having to defend our hair?”
The decision is a clear example of the “systemic racism” that exists in elite swimming, McClendon said. Typically FINA chooses not to approve particular swim gear because it’s not the right thickness or weight for competition, she said — or because the product wasn’t submitted on time. It’s “ridiculous,” she said, to reject the Soul Cap because the committee deems the product “unnecessary.”
“I guarantee you have athletes at the Olympics who have different types of hair. For them to say you don’t need [these caps] at the elite level — they should be ashamed of themselves.”
Ndiaye can’t stop thinking about the group of people who landed on this decision. There is one question she’d like to ask FINA, she said: “How many Black people were in that room?”
If it was anything like most rooms in competitive swimming, she said, she is pretty sure she knows the answer.