Hackney-based TV star aims to get more inner city youngsters involved in swimming challenge

Andy Akinwolere with a group at a Swim Dem Crew training session

Andy Akinwolere with a group at a Swim Dem Crew training session - Credit: Archant

A new wave of swimmers are taking to the pool in east London – all thanks to a community project aimed at tackling the huge drop in participation since the London Olympics.

Swim Dem Crew, created by Nathaniel Cole and Peigh Asante, launched at London Fields Lido in April.

The movement designed to offer inner city youth and ethnic minorities of all ages the opportunity to learn to swim within a supportive environment, at a time when fewer people are engaged with the sport.

Figures released by Sport England at the start of 2015 revealed that the activity had seen a drop of 245,000 participants over a 12-month period beginning in October 2013.

Of the 2.69million people who were reported to have swum at least 30 minutes a week, the vast majority are likely to have come from middle class or privileged backgrounds, given the cost to swim at pools predominantly owned by leisure centres.

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The decline in participation has been felt no more acutely than in East London, where gentrification has led to the growing cost for a mother of two to pay for swimming classes.

Former Blue Peter presenter and swimming world record holder Andy Akinwolere wanted to change the visual make up of swimmers in the UK by bringing it to an audience usually unreachable.

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Akinwolere, who lives in London Fields, is the figurehead of the ‘The Swim Dem Challenge’, in which a group of east Londoners have been challenged to learn to swim one mile in open water.

The first event took place in Manchester last weekend, with Tower Hamlets’ very own St Katherine Docks the setting for the second wave this weekend, and Akinwolere - who only learned how to swim himself a few years ago - can’t wait.

“It’s great to see how the group have taken up the challenge like a fish to water!” Akinwolere told the Gazette. “There’s an 18-year-old, whose siblings suffer from disabilities. He is like his mother’s righthand man, and this project is a form of escapism for him.

“It’s really transformed his life and he’s one of our best swimmers too. If you give people the tools, you can never underestimate the power of personal motivation.

“Four million people in Britain cannot swim, so targeting young people is tantamount to the project’s success. The idea of us being a crew as opposed to being a club takes the competitive element out of swimming and makes it a much more enjoyable and fun experience for the participant.

“It has brought us together to look like no other swim team out there.’

“We wanted to take them up to Manchester first as a way of taking them out of their comfort zone. The North/South divide is very much akin to the social barriers were are trying to break down with this project, so it made sense.

“For those who have never swum in open water before, completing a mile is empowering and the confidence it can instil in those who may previously have struggled with their body image is unbelievable. Swimming is an exposing activity, so for many this really is the challenge of their lives.’

Akinwolere is ambitious.

During his days on Blue Peter, he set two world records for swimming in one of the deepest stretches of water on the planet. Akinwolere swam five miles across Palau Trench, an 8,000-metre deep abyss in the Pacific Ocean and was the first person to swim across the deepest part of the trench, holding the record for the deepest location for an open water swim.

All this came only a few weeks after he was unable to swim a length and was terrified of open water.

While his focus now is on changing lives by teaching the basic techniques of swimming, the TV personality is determined for his project to align itself with an even bigger movement.

“You look at the faces of the Team GB swimming team, and they are all white,” the 32-year-old continued. “But I want to prove that black people can swim! I know that the black community can do more to promote swimming, but it is down to everyone to think of ways to bring those swimming has lost back into the pool.

“The Swim Dem Challenge is geared at enabling people to find themselves, it is inclusive and was formed with the working class in mind. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a Team GB that actually looked like Great Britain today?”

Akinwolere, who is an ambassador of The Swimming Trust, recently appeared in Celebrity Master Chef and is the face of BBC’s Inside Out, presenting investigative factual stories for the West Midlands.

With Akinwolere’s aim of making swimming more accessible, affordable and interactive for young adults, the whole of East London can get swimming again. One of the participants this weekend, 20-year-old Elizabeth Rufai, embodies this collective creed.

“I want to take on the challenge to overcome a fear of water. Aside from the main fear of drowning, I want to get over the reluctance to take risks and pursue new ideas.

“I think swimming is an important life skill that everyone should have - taking on this challenge will be a big confidence boost for me and a really exciting journey.”

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