Swim Dem Crew is making a bigger splash (2024)

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London Fields Lido café on a Saturday morning is picture-perfect. There are mothers in perfectly coordinated athleisure sporting coffees and cooing babies,a semi-famous magazine journalist talking in low, intense tones to afriend and a steady stream of swimmers, heading in totake a dipor shaking their wethair as they stroll out into thesoft springsunshine.

Sitting on a picnic bench and eating a slice of the café’s banana bread is Peigh Asante, the 38-year-old co-founder of Swim Dem Crew. He is at home in the London swimming community. He startedgoing to £1 swim nights at a leisure centre in south-east London as a teenager, just for some fun (“You’dfinish and then you’d go and have £1 pizza, so for£2 you were sorted on a Friday night”). In 2013, he started swimming regularly with twoother friends, visiting different London pools, and ayear later they founded Swim Dem Crew, a city-wide swimming club. Their first decade has seen them teach more than 200 Londoners how to swim, collaborate with Usain Bolt and travel to Senegal and Jamaica.

Swim Dem Crew is making a bigger splash (1)
Swim Dem Crew is making a bigger splash (2)

Asante’s best friend and Swim Dem co-founder Nathaniel Cole joins us, dressed in his branded Swim Dem T-shirt. In the 2010s, both were members of Run Dem Crew, apioneering London running club that soughtto make the sport more inclusive. When another friend, Emily Deyn, started swimming with them at weekends, Swim Dem Crew was born: “We would swim together, get some lunch or whatever, and then fall asleepon Emily’s sofa.” The group’s name came naturally – “Run Dem Crew was such a big part of our lives, we would just give anything the moniker. We’d go for coffee:Coffee Dem Crew. You ride your bike: Bike Dem Crew.” Hence, Swim Dem Crew.

Friends soon started asking whether they could join, and the answer was always “of course!” After a few years of swimming all over London and exploring the different pools the city had to offer – usually followed by brunch and sometimes an exhibition – Cole and Asante decided to get their swimming qualifications so they could teachalongside their day jobs in “creative admin” and advertising. It was a turning point. The duo marketedthe lessons on social media, and within twoyears, just one session a week was no longer enough to keep up with demand. Their response was to add more lessons, and Cole started teaching full-time at pools across the city.

They were five years into Swim Dem when they realised that “most of our friends and family” were stillnon-swimmers. “My sister still can’t swim to this day,” says Asante. Many were people of colour. An oft-cited statistic from Sports England states that 97 per cent of Black adults in the country do not swim. The figure for Asian adults (excluding those who identify as Chinese), asrecorded by Active Lives, is similar.

Swim Dem Crew is making a bigger splash (3)

‘Just by being present, and being visible we became role models’

The duo decided to start a Thursday-night session specifically designed to help them overcome their fear of water. “Some people don’t like getting their hair wet,” says Cole, whose parents are from the Caribbean. “Some people don’t like the way chlorine makes their skin [feel].” The pair have tailored their teaching methods accordingly, recommending pre- and post-swim products for skin and hair, ensuring their language and references feel familiar to students and letting them know whether hairdryers will be available. Their approach, and the message of inclusivity, has become a blueprint of sorts. Asante, who is of Ghanaian heritage, says that similar swimming clubs have cited Swim Dem as an inspiration. “Just by being present, and being visible [we became role models].”

As the club has expanded, so has its power and reputation, which has helped when the pair have faced pushback from the swimming community. Asante remembers a coach at the London Aquatic Centre who refused to give up his lane on time while they were trying to start a class because, as Asante saw it, he didn’t take what Swim Dem were doing seriously. Asante felt his conduct encouraged the children in the pool to think disparagingly of the group. Vindication came both quickly and sweetly. Not long after, the club featured on the front page of SwimmingTimes magazine. Overnight, the coach’s attitude changed. “That’s his world,” says Asante. “We’re on the front page of your world now.”

Swim Dem Crew is making a bigger splash (4)
Swim Dem Crew is making a bigger splash (5)

With their place in the city firmly established, the only threat the group now faces is the slow decline of the pools in which they swim. Sport England data analysed by the Guardian found that almost 400 pools had closed from 2010 to last year. “Public infrastructure around swimming is, I think, a part of a wider conversation [about] how community assets are handed over to private companies,” says Cole. Just because they are in private hands, he suggests, does not mean they’re better places “for you and me”. The lack of “third spaces” for millennials has become “a hot topic”, he says, speaking of the demand for places where people can relax and spend time away from home or work that don’t cost a huge amount. Swim Dem is important because it “exists as one of those”.

Swim Dem Crew is making a bigger splash (6)
Swim Dem Crew is making a bigger splash (7)

Swim Dem Crew is now broadening its reach. In 2019, Cole and Asante shot a Puma Swim brand campaign in Jamaica with Usain Bolt, an experience that led to time on the Olympian’s yacht. Last year there was a trip to Senegal to compete in the 34th annual Dakar-Gorée crossing. The two friends chronicled the swim, which pays homage to the victims of slavery in the region, with a documentary and a zine full of photographs by Ash Narod, on sale at The Photographers’ Gallery and the Swim Dem website (£10). But, ultimately, they do it for the sport. Cole is evangelical when he talks about what swimming means to him. “Water holds you up. Water says, ‘I’ve got you.’” He continues: “Especially when it rains. When it rains and you’re swimming…” Asante finishes his sentence: “It’s beautiful.”


Swim Dem Crew is making a bigger splash (2024)
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