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Triathlon is a welcoming sport, but it is still largely a white, able-bodied, affluent, and heteronormative sport. According to a 2016 USA Triathlon Membership Survey, 84% of participants identified as white, 5% Hispanic/Latino, 3% Asian, and just 1% Black.
Although equity can sometimes seem like a finish line that is a long way off, the hard work of the people outlined in this five-part mini-series helps show that there is already a sea change in the endurance world. In these five interviews, we’ll be talking with some of these people about the valuable work they are doing already in the sport, industry, and at companies like Zwift and Peloton. Each of them are making access easier for every kind of body to feel at ease and at home in training and competition, with multiple points of entry.
In the opening part of this series, we spoke with Shannon Woods from Brooks Running and last week we heard from Lisa Bourne, Senior Director of Diversity, Inclusion & Social Impact at Zwift. This week, we have the story of Toks Ahmed-Salawudeen and Michael Chapman, co-founders at SOUL CAP, the company that sells swim caps and hair towels for people with Afros, extensions, and voluminous hair. SOUL CAP notably hit the headlines this summer ahead of the Tokyo Olympics when FINA, the international federation for swimming, banned the use of their products at the Games claiming they did not follow the natural form of the head.
Where are you from and what was your relationship with sports like as kids, and how did you come to start SOUL CAP?
We’ve been best friends for around 20 years. We were both raised in London and have a very similar story. We grew up in families where swimming was something we just didn’t do. As kids, we had heard that “Black people don’t swim,” and water sports just weren’t pushed on us as much as other athletic sports like football or running.In 2016, a mutual friend began swimming lessons which made us both decide it was time for us to learn too. During one of our adult swimming lessons, we met a Black woman struggling with the size of her swim cap and her afro hair. After talking with our friends, sisters, and mothers, we came to realize haircare was a huge barrier to swimming. The needs of those with voluminous hair were massively overlooked, so we decided to create our own company.
What is your mission at SOUL CAP, and what work are you doing to improve diversity and inclusion in swimming?
We’re so proud to have kickstarted our journey by giving confidence to swimmers with hair types that weren’t catered to before, but that’s just the start. We’re passionate about improving swim education through our incredible grassroots partners, such as Tankproof and Empowered Swimming who provide free swimming lessons to underrepresented communities. We’re also dedicated to spotlighting other conversations around barriers to the sport, such as financial accessibility to pools, neurodiversity, body image and normalizing adults learning how to swim. We want to help make the water a more inviting, inclusive, and fun space for all.
What is the biggest challenge you’re facing?
In advance of the summer Olympics in Tokyo, we experienced challenges in making our swim caps approved and available for competitive swimmers. The news surrounding our rejection by the governing body of aquatics, FINA, gained global support, and thanks to the power of community, the challenges we were facing turned into creating change. The support we received resulted in a direct conversation with FINA, where they apologized, promised to review their approval process, and offered their full support in the next submission window. It feels like a significant cultural shift within the swim world, and we’re proud to be a part of that.
Why is this mission important to you?
Swimming can save your life, so it’s vital for us to stay true to our mission to improve swim confidence and help give more people access to the water. Our favorite messages we receive are from people letting us know how much SOUL CAP has impacted them, from parents happy that their child finally feels included in classes to adults who are excited to be on their learning to swim journey. We’re constantly driven by the community we’ve built and excited for what the future holds.