Commentary: Soul Cap Ban Another Blow for Racial Access, Acceptance in Swimming SOUL CAP XL Credit: Soul Cap
Photo Courtesy: Soul Cap

Commentary: Soul Cap Ban Another Blow for Racial Access, Acceptance in Swimming

Commentary — By Dr. Herman Kelly

In response to the ruling by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) regarding swimming caps for women of color: This is racism, even in the swimming pool.

African American women are born with a certain texture of hair, and this new invention called the Soul Cap helps with hair care as they swim.

This cap does not give one a competitive advantage; it only helps with hair protection while swimming.


Photo Courtesy: Herman O. Kelly, Jr.

Swimming in the communities of color is already a phobia. I was taught to swim in a segregated swimming pool because my sister and I were not permitted to swim in the city pools. Therefore, if African Americans did not have access to safe swimming environments, many times they would swim in rivers, lakes and creeks. These unsafe conditions caused many young people of color to drown.

This phobia is even present today. My mission is to eradicate this phobia by education and teaching swimming safety and swimming lessons. This ruling by FINA does not help our efforts.

I am a masters swimmer, and I have been swimming in competition the last few years. I have been encouraged by the many young people of color I see learning to swim at the facility where I teach swimming. As a pastor, I organized a swimming ministry named after my mentor and late swimming coach, Dr. James Haines of Morehouse College.

As an African American swimmer, I have worked most of my adult life to remove and change the narrative regarding swimming in marginalized communities. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to learn to swim and compete in a segregated situation, but our parents knew the importance of swimming and encouraged us to learn. My sister and I would watch our father sit in the Florida heat while we learned to swim and became proficient in the water. I have this same type of commitment to help underserved persons learn to swim in order to save their lives and the lives of others.

The Soul Cap was never a fashion statement, but a statement of inclusion and an attempt to help diversify the swimming community. The Crawfish Aquatics Master’s program and the entire Crawfish family have made me feel welcomed, and the program comprises a diverse community. Coach Nan and Coach Ashley have given me the opportunity to practice my craft and my mission to reach out to other’s to save lives.

This ruling by FINA does not help diversify the swimming community. It continues to marginalize people of color.

Herman Kelly is an adjunct instructor in Louisiana State University’s African and African American Studies Department and pastor at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge. He is a certified CPR/lifeguard trainer, a state champion in the Senior Olympics and the founder of the Dr. James Haines Swimming Ministry. An earlier version of this story appeared in the LSU Reveille. For further information, listen to an interview by Black Swimming Association founder Danielle Obe.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine, the International Swimming Hall of Fame, nor its staff.


  1. avatar

    Oh give it up. This isn’t racist, this is yet another example of blacks breaking the rules and demanding to be pandered to. We’re sick to death of this nonsense.

    There isn’t a competitive swimmer ( or bicyclist ) who doesn’t shave their entire body. It’s been like that for at least 50 years. Nearly all the swimmers have very short hair, always. You want long hair, don’t be swim racer.

    If the rules are changed to allow a head covering considerably larger than the skull, then I’m going to design a cleaving design swim cap, similar to the bow of a boat, to give me a slightly better hydrodynamic advantage.

    And if you learned to swim in a segregated pool, then you are really getting up there in years. I’m 60, and there was no such thing anymore when I was a kid. So your gripe is decades past relevance.

    • avatar
      John Lohn - Editor-in-Chief

      No, we’re not sick to death of it. We’re sick to death of racist comments, which you so handily provided in your first three sentences.

      • avatar

        just like the black track athletes that failed their drug screen (at THIS LEVEL) and are now crying for the committee to look the other way …. but we’re all supposed to be treated equal ? who’s really the racists then ??

    • avatar
      Herman Kelly

      In Florida it was! I am older than you Sir

  2. avatar

    Thanks for the opportunity to express my concerns.
    Herman Kelly

  3. avatar

    I did not see anywhere in this article the reason for the ban. Dora anyone know the stated reasoning behind banning the cap?


  4. avatar

    I agree with Nan, why is the cap banned? Also, as a black swimmer, I do not see the racism about, not being able to wear the cap. Which to me looks like it would create drag. Maybe the racism is that the creators are not big names, and a black creator? I tried to google the creator, but did not find much and quite frankly lost interest.

  5. avatar
    Lisa Hanf

    My daughter swam D1 in college. She used
    two caps when she swam. This helped her
    to manage her long hair during meets. I don’t
    understand the ruling by FINA.

  6. avatar

    This is not a social justice issue. The cap is not allowed at the Olympics, FINA World Championships or FINA qualifying events. The company was denied approval more than one and a half years ago. That would give them the time to conform to FINA policies for caps for the Olympics. They did not do so.

    So what they should be questioned about by journalists, sports and otherwise is when was their Cap denied approval and did they try to make modifications since?

    They did not and decided to agitate racial tensions as a cheap , socially destructive marketing gimmick.

    They have certainly got attention but we need to go beyond the headlines and check those issues.

    Social justice issues would be to get more black people to swim. Get more learn to swim programmes in predominantly black areas. Promote more black swimming stars such as Simone Manuel, Alia Atkinson, Mehdy Metella and others.

    If persons who are not competing at the elite level want to wear the cap because they want to have more hair on their head or protect a particular hairstyle the Cap is not banned. It could also be used with persons who want to learn to swim as a life skill.
    We should also ask are brands available that do what Soul Cap claims to offer already in the the market place.

    Again this is not a social justice issue but a marketing strategy used by a company playing upon the tensions of the day. Let us not just be taken in by headlines but really examine the facts of the matter.

  7. avatar

    Here’s the other half of the story. The intent of the rule is to prevent the wearing of a hydrofoil on the head, similar to the shape of the aero bicycle helmet used in time trials. The tail would mitigate wake vortex to reduce drag. If you have a lot of hair and room to play with a swim cap, you could shape your hair into a hydrofoil, and everybody will have this long tail on the back of their caps going down to the nape of their neck. Regardless of whether this advantage was more perceived than real, FINA wanted to avoid this distraction.

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