Style News

AT FLANNELS: With Swim Dem Crew

AT FLANNELS: With Swim Dem Crew

The London-based swimming collective, Swim Dem Crew, have changed the pool forever. Over a day in Broadstairs, we caught up with two of the club’s founders, Peigh Asante and Nathaniel Cole, to talk breaking boundaries, the benefits of a good swim and, of course, the makings of great swimming threads.

Welcome to the latest series of AT FLANNELS – a series dedicated to shining a light on creativity and culture across the UK.

“There’s that age old saying that you can’t be what you can’t see. We didn’t really see much people that reflected us in that water, so why would we go to those spaces?” explains Asante.

Swim Dem Crew was founded eight years ago out of what Cole calls a desire to make swimming less, well, boring. “Some people love that. It’s kind of isolating and you get time to yourself and time to think in your head, but not everyone wants that. Swim Dem came about as a way to meet people and to make friends... Speaking at a pool made sense to me.”

The result was a community of like-minded individuals who meet to swim, brunch and hang out, with weekly classes available to educate and empower and annual retreats for hardcore members.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that Swim Dem Crew has come to stand for so much more. A desire to create a tight-knit community (that the duo describes as ‘family’) yes, but also a determination to open up the world of swimming to those previously marginalised at the pool. As Cole quotes, a staggering 94% of black adults in the UK cannot swim. 94%. In 2021. Let that sink in.

“Because of what swimming is, people kind of pigeonholed it, like a swimmer is only this one type of thing,” says Cole.

Asante was part of that statistic. Teaching himself to swim at the age of 20, following a running injury, he, quite literally, threw himself in at the deep end. “You know, one of my life mantras is to learn by doing, so swimming taught me that: just chuck yourself in and let experience lead the way. It made me feel empowered.”

Of course, now Swim Dem exists to help bridge this gap, to teach others how to swim, no matter where they are in life. But it hasn’t been an easy journey. The duo has had to work, constantly, to break down the barriers and shatter the stereotypes in order to give others a safe space to swim.

“We had so many doors shut on us, so many barriers to entry,” says Asante. “It took five years before they [leisure centres and pool operators] eventually said yes. So yeah, we do walk with our heads up high when we’re walking poolside, and our shoulders back, and do feel quite, you know, confident and empowered. Because it’s not been easy. It’s been a battle. It’s been a challenge.

“We had to kick the door down and say, ‘listen you can be here, this is for you as well, this space is not closed off for you’. This space is for everyone. It’s for us too you know. It’s a big achievement. People come to us who would never ever go and swim otherwise.”

While we joke that once there was, in Swim Dem Crew’s infancy, a strict screening process to get in – the pair used to ask what your favourite ice cream flavour was (“It’s just a way to get people to talk – it’s really not about the ice cream” I’m reassured) they are firm in their stance that Swim Dem is for everyone.

The idea of stripping off and swimming at your local pool with a whole crew might seem daunting, but after 60 minutes in their company, my mindset shifts, and I start to see the concept as freeing.

“That’s exactly how we want people to feel when they come to Swim Dem: liberated,” says Asante. “We pride ourselves on the fact that there’s no look for a Swim Dem swimmer. You just come as you are. It’s your body. If your body helps you swim then that’s it,” agrees Cole.

But it turns out, there are some aesthetics that the duo does care about. Deeply. Of course, we’re talking swim gear. “For me, it has to look the part, something to reflect my personality of being bright and open, and it’s a bonus if it does the job well. I’m looking first as pure status and that secondary layer is stuff that actually works well for me,” explains Cole. “It has to compliment my tones, so anything that’s like earthy colours or reds or oranges.

And for Peigh? “My style reflects who I am: it’s eclectic and adaptable and also cosy. I like to be comfortable,” he says. “One of the looks where I can wear it on the street but also in the pool.”

Their energy is infectious. The way the duo talk about swimming, makes you crave cool waters and open seas. As someone who admits to jumping in only when I’m on holiday, I realise how much I’m missing out on.

“Swimming, especially in lockdown, has given me that chance to breathe. It sounds silly, but when you push off the wall and you glide, there’s something nice about stretching out and floating and moving. That feeling of something else holding me rather than me having to hold myself up,” says Cole.

“I’ve got quite a busy head; my mind is busy, and I can’t stop thinking. I can’t stop moving and I can’t stop doing. When I get in the water, it is a bit of a moment of pause. There’s no real distractions,” agrees Asante.

I wonder, as the country carefully makes its transition out of lockdown, what does the future hold for Swim Dem? “The immediate future is a safe return to the pool. We traditionally would run four sessions a week but we’re going to start with one and build ourselves back up,” explains Asante.

Today, Swim Dem has a 200 strong crew on their books, with a seriously engaged following on social media to boot. So big is their reach that similar collectives are popping up across the world, inspired by their approach to the pool.

“We’ve had people message us personally from the States and different places. We’ve happily given them our blessing and they’ve gone on to start their own communities, which is amazing to see… Yes, it’s not called “Swim Dem America” but when we’re laid to rest, we’ll know that we did that,” says Asante. “This thing that started [nearly] 10 years ago has managed to empower and inspire communities around the globe.”

What, I ask, do they hope will be the Swim Dem legacy? “I feel like we have helped change the perception of what a swimmer is,” explains Cole. “Before, when me and Peigh would speak, we used to want to have a kid at the Olympics but that’s not where my heart is anymore. The legacy would be more communities like Swim Dem all over the world and more places for them to swim.”

It sounds, to me, like they’re already there.

Swim Dem Crew founders: Peigh Asante and Nathaniel Cole, with Tonea Charlery and Frances Pollitzer, Director, photographer and music: Joseph J Marshal, Creative and cultural production: Platform 13, Interview and words: Hannah Dunn, Hair and makeup: Kerry September , Locations: The Table Broadstairs and Morelli’s Gelato.