Alice Dearing did not relish her first open water race. For pool swimmers, the experience is often unnerving: choppy water, no lanes, competitors frequently colliding, difficulty in judging where your rivals are and, sobre todo, there is the cold.
Dearing remembers those 2014 trials in Portugal for the British junior team with a shudder. “I was blissfully unaware how hard it was. The water temperature was 14C. There were no wetsuits. I only weighed 45kgs. It was raining. I was in survival mode. It was the worst experience I have ever had in swimming. But I thought if I can survive that, then I can survive anything.”
She did and subsequently she has flourished, beginning with the European junior title that year. When Dearing plunges into the sea off Tokyo for the 10km race next Wednesday, she will not only have a chance of a place on the podium but will also be the first black female swimmer to have represented Britain at the Olympics.
The 24-year-old says she owes much to her mother, who is from Accra in Ghana and herself a keen swimmer. For the early-morning training session drop-offs at the Royal Wolverhampton School, the alarm went off at 4am before pick-up at 7.30pm following academic work and a second session. As Dearing recalled on the Tough Girls podcast: “Sometimes now I wonder how we did it. But my Mum saw potential in me. Whenever I had a wobble, she would encourage me and say leave it for a week or so. It is difficult when you have friends going to parties and other things going on in life.
“At certain times, I have really struggled in sport. I would lie if I said I had sailed through. But there is a sense of achievement from swimming when you get a personal best or complete a hard training session.”
Five years ago in Rio, Dearing was enraptured, when watching at home, she saw the black sprinter from the United States, Simone Manuel win four medals, including two gold, a total which she may increase in Tokyo in the 50 metres freestyle. Manuel was the first black female swimmer to win Olympic gold. Dearing pointed Manuel out to her mother because she had become aware how few black elite swimmers there have been. En Gran Bretaña, the last male Olympian, Paul Marshall, was in the 1980 team.
Dearing herself had “a very positive experience in swimming” but admits to odd exceptions, saying that when she began training, she got some stares and in an earlier interview with the Guardian, revealed that a rival coach had once used the N-word to describe her.
Dearing became a co-founder of the Black Swimming Association to promote the activity among communities during the Covid-19 lockdown. As a pioneer, she hopes her successors will not be asked the same questions about the lack of diversity and wants her presence in Tokyo to encourage wider participation.
“I think all of the people in the aquatic centre are very much behind wanting to make swimming diverse and inclusive," ella dice. “It’s just a shame it’s been so many years where black people have been excluded.”
Andi Manley, Dearing’s coach at Loughborough University, where she is completing a master’s in social media and political communication, has prepared her for Tokyo with 10 two-hour sessions, up to 70km a week. He describes them as “challenging but bearable”. All training is done in the pool because of the need to accustom the body to a sustained, measured pace. He says: “We aim to make the need to average one minutes 12 seconds per 100 metres as comfortable as possible.” For the final hectic finish, sprinting ability is required so there are plenty of 50-metre repetitions.
Manley appreciates how Dearing has “bought into the programme. Some swimmers just like to be told what to do. But Alice wants to be involved in the planning side, making suggestions about sessions.”
Whatever happens in Tokyo, simply being picked for the Games has been hugely gratifying. “My mum never stopped smiling all week. She has been my rock, my taxi, my bank. My success is her success.”