My Lightbulb Moment

What started as a nagging insecurity in childhood remained a shadow in Summaya Mughal’s life as, into her twenties, she remained unable to swim. A host of factors, from her own British Pakistani background to social anxiety, had all conspired to stop Summaya from learning until, in the course of her work for the BBC, she met Alice Dearing, Team GB’s first black female swimmer.

“I love the water,” Summaya says, “I absolutely adore it. So, not being able to swim was a weird dichotomy of wanting so much to be near water, and finding it very peaceful, but at the same time, being super-scared. I had considered having swimming lessons before, but I didn’t really want to go to my local pool for the fear that someone I knew might see me and I would be really embarrassed that I was an adult who couldn’t swim.”

Inspired and encouraged by Alice and Olympian Rebecca Adlington, Summaya embarked on a life-changing journey to become a swimmer, charting her progress through her podcast, Brown Gal Can’t Swim. Life-changing in many ways, as not only did Summaya complete a 500m open-water challenge just eight weeks later, but Brown Gal Can’t Swim became a sensation, winning broadcasting awards and kick-starting an entire movement to encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to learn to Swim.

Despite her own mother being able to swim – something that Summaya didn’t know until she started her own swimming crusade – opportunities to learn as a child were lost. She describes her mother taking her to the odd swimming lesson, but not picking it up, and how her Pakistan-born father was not interested. “Sport generally wasn’t really seen as a priority when I was growing up; let alone something like swimming, which was something my dad couldn’t do at all. He never learned and never took us to the pool. It just wasn’t on his radar.”

The potential barriers (and she is careful to stress the word ‘potential’) to swimming are, she has learnt over the course of her podcast, wide-ranging. Modesty – and the spectrum of how modesty is regarded by different people – was one. Cost and accessibility is another, as is the format of swimming lessons. “Not having enough female swimming sessions is one thing,” she says. “But I also spoke to many men over the series of the podcast who expressed that they would not be comfortable learning to swim in front of women.”

“Changing rooms matter too. There often isn’t a big enough or a dedicated changing space for women, or there will be a mixed-cubicle setting, which might be quite scary for some people.” Then there are the lifeguards: some women may not feel comfortable with a male lifeguard overseeing a female-only swimming session. And then there’s the issue of pool visibility. If your pool has glass all along the side and looks out onto a car park, a lot of people will feel self-conscious.

“Not having enough female swimming sessions is one thing. But I also spoke to many men over the series of the podcast who expressed that they would not be comfortable learning to swim in front of women.”

Summaya’s mission clearly hit a nerve. “The podcast went way further than I expected it to,” she says. “I didn’t expect it to get the coverage that it did – BBC Breakfast, Woman’s Hour, Five Live, the TEDx Talk, and outside the UK as well. And I didn’t expect the number of brands and organisations that came forward wanting to get involved and understand more about what they could do to help adults learn to swim.”

Off the back of some of the issues that Brown Gal Can’t Swim surfaced, Swim England commissioned a major piece of research into adult swimming, focusing particularly on the Asian community, The Royal Lifeguard Society have invited her to become a lifeguard, and Speedo have made an approach to work with her on a modest swimwear line.

“I’m just really thankful that the sector is hoping to make a difference and support all communities,” she Says.

And there, possibly, is some of the magic of her movement. Brown Gal Can’t Swim, it turns out, didn’t just highlight the potential barriers to swimming within the Asian community. “I think Brown Gal Can’t Swim did so well because firstly, we found a community of people that felt seen, regardless of their ethnicity, because they couldn’t swim. Then, because the community it was originally aimed at – mine – felt seen and heard in something they knew was a problem nobody was speaking about, and finally, because it’s a topic that captures the interest of all sorts of people.”

So, where does Brown Gal Can’t Swim go next? “It is open-ended,” she says. “The BBC have spoken about a number of different options for the Brown Gal brand – whether we do another sport, or go into other areas. Whatever we do, there are always millions of individuals who can’t do something, who don’t feel visible, or have perceived barriers about acquiring a particular skill.”

“We found a community of people that felt seen, regardless of their ethnicity, because they couldn’t swim.”

She’s very clear about one thing, though. “I’d like it to move away from me. Tempting as it is to tell the world about all the things I can’t do, I don’t want to become ‘novel’. It would be great fun, but the most rewarding things I’ve done are things that have served a greater meaning or purpose.

“The most important thing is probably to figure out where I can have the greatest impact for the people that need it the most… which is a really long way of saying that I’m still working it out!”


Summaya Mughal

Summaya is an alumna of Nottingham Girls’ High School, and a multi-award winning senior BBC journalist, presenter, actor and TEDx speaker.

Brown Gal Can’t Swim won Podcast of the Year at the British Sports Journalism Awards, a Nottingham Award from the city for contribution to community, the Asian Media Award for Best Podcast and Summaya was nominated for On Screen Breakthrough at the Midlands Royal Television Society Awards.

She currently presents weekday Mid-Mornings (10am-2pm) on BBC Radio Leicester where she created Brown Gal Can’t Swim.

GDST Life Alumnae Magazine 2024/25

Summaya is featured in our 2024/25 edition of GDST Life alumnae magazine, where you will find a whole host of features and articles including stories, tips and viewpoints from a range of alumnae contributors, GDST and school news, our latest alumnae book listings, and how you can keep in touch.

Read the full GDST Life Magazine