Hi everyone, I’m Gemma. I’m proud to be a role model for people from a global majority background who might not have considered taking up paddle boarding as a sport. May my actions of being visible and championing an often overlooked ‘Black’ perspective reverberate, inspire others and encourage collaborations.
Now is the Time for Change: Action Not Words within our societies. Every moment is an opportunity to plan towards a more inclusive and accessible sport for people of colour where we too have a voice and can feel comfortable. You (allies) can support by initiating and carrying change beyond this month.
What have your experiences been as a Black paddler? What challenges have you faced in your experience?
When I first started stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) I searched hard to find a Black female paddle boarder to follow and it threw up the question. Are they even out there? I often scroll through socials like Instagram looking at paddlesport brands and club websites and I’ve noticed a lack of diversity at grassroots to elite level – age, gender, ethnicity, ability and socio-econo status.
Where are the ethnic stand-up paddle boarders? So, I asked around our top UK SUP racers and not one black paddle boarder globally could be named!
It’s widely commented within the British Black community that ‘we’ as a people don’t tend to gravitate towards swimming or even know how to. It’s a bigger piece than this article can cover but next time you visit your local swimming pool or open water swim meet, consider the diversity by ethnicity of the group and reflect.
Often homogeneous groups, committees and communities, without realising, fall short in their considerations by assuming that ‘giving consideration to’ or ‘empathy’ is enough when planning or putting in place requirements for inclusivity. There is no substitute for a ‘lived experience’ when it comes to the ‘Black voice’. By bringing diversity within your core planning teams brings success for all and as an ally you can collaborate with, support or champion for change. If you want to attract a new group of people, speak to them and represent them in all matters.
I’ve had a great experience as a paddler and that’s why I decided to set up SUP Huntingdon on Facebook – a local community for stand-up paddle boarders and water-lovers. Sadly, many behaviours we’d all like to believe communities have a handle on are still ingrained or even institutionalised – racism, self-entitlement, passive aggression. So, I was, and still am, intent on removing barriers I’d encountered, either witnessed or in-person in other groups from appearing in my own. At the core of the group is trust, inclusivity and making the environment welcoming for all. Well, as much as the group knowledge and resources allow.
By being visible I’m creating a space for all to belong. The message I intend to send to Black people is that they too can belong. Hopefully this leads to other people thinking ‘I can do this sport, I belong in this space. I would like others out there considering the sport regardless of your ethnicity to know it’s an inclusive, welcoming environment.
I have been empowered to uphold these values because of my diversity and look forward to continuing to do so.
Who have your role models been, either in paddling or across sports?
I’m proud that my heritage is linked to the Windrush generation and without their sacrifices, resilience and determination first-generation British Black children like myself would not be here.
My fondest memories from childhood are from the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. The Jamaicans and Americans really put on a good show in the sprints and hurdles, whilst the Jamaican Netball team often carried away tournament wins!
With all the sporting greats representing their respective countries, there was everything to play for, and for me, it was a chance to see black role models performing at the highest level – and doing it incredibly well. It was such a buzz stationed in front of the telly, captivated by athletes competing at international levels.
As a member of the Caribbean Community, we have a long-lasting sense of ‘pride’ and ‘support’ in getting behind our athletes. I can remember it as if it were yesterday…my mother screaming with excitement at the telly ‘come on JA (Jamaica)’ in netball finals or ‘come on Shelley (Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce – sprinter)’, ‘move your behind Otty’ (Merlene Ottey – sprinter) and willing on the track stars over the finish line. It’s a delight that we have our own homegrown British Black talent coming up through different sports as role models. Children of today Black or otherwise, can look to their idols to be inspired like well known Olympians Kelly Holmes, Jessica Ennis and Dina Asher-Smith or Jean Hornsby the first Black netball player to represent England.
One day, maybe just one day, there will be many Black British athletes progressing through all the levels of paddlesports.
Just as I was inspired, if my visible presence in the sport can spark curiosity, desire and reach just one Black child or adult, it’ll be worthwhile.
And if you are wondering, I’m embracing racing fully and I’ve never felt more alive than when I’m paddling with my natural hair blowing in the breeze! Over the last year I’ve competed in regional races and had some success with the occasional race podium or age and division places. This passion is also taking me on the path as an Instructor so that I can encourage others onto the water and coach them towards enjoying the sport year round.
You can follow my journey on Instagram @GetGemma and please share with me your personal stories. I’m available for talks, consultancy and as a contributor for groups considering pivoting and attracting ethnic communities as part of my efforts to grow representation in sports.
Thank you to Gemma for sharing her insights and experiences with us.
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