Team GB's only Black rower: 'I feel like a guest in a majority white space'

Kyra Edwards is the only Black mixed-heritage member of any British Rowing team. She’s the only non-white athlete in the entire organisation.

The young sportswoman is a future Olympic hopeful, a talented ambassador for rowing, but Kyra’s identity is also defined by isolation.

It’s something she is determined to change for the next wave of young British sporting talent.

‘I want to make sure I leave this sport way more diverse than when I found it. That is more important to me than winning an Olympic gold medal,’ Kyra tells Metro.co.uk.

‘Winning a medal – that alone doesn’t really sit well with me. I don’t want to do this for myself, I want to do this for the generations sitting at home.

‘If I get the opportunity to race at the Olympics and win, I don’t want to just sit around with my medal around my neck and be like, “cool, I won”.

‘It is so important to me the Black children – or any ethnic minority – watching at home, that they can see that diversity is possible. That they can thrive even in spaces they don’t think were made for them.’

Kyra grew up in a majority white area and went to majority white schools throughout her education. Being the odd one out is almost second-nature to her.

‘I didn’t have any Black female friends whatsoever. I have never had one, I’m still waiting to find my one!’ she laughs.

‘When I went to university, I was the only person of colour in the room in every single lecture I took. Rowing is just an extension of that. It isn’t a new feeling for me.’

While it may be a feeling Kyra is used to, consistently existing in spaces where she is the only one, the only person who looks like she does, does take a toll.

‘Being the only person of colour in the room – at all times – is extremely isolating,’ she admits.

This isolation was the norm for so long for Kyra that she found herself struggling to even identify what she was feeling. But, reading Reni Edo-Lodge’s seminal book Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, helped her recognise these complex emotions.

‘There were so many little segments that just wholeheartedly resonated with me,’ she explains.

‘I read this passage about how people of colour aren’t able to bring up race without being shut down. And I felt that. Sometimes, I want so badly to have these conversations and talk about it, but I feel like I can’t be the one to bring it up.

‘It is just this weird tension within myself. And I feel like there have been so many things like that. I have been put in my place so many times that I now inherently, or subconsciously, feel like I have to follow other people’s rules in the world.

‘And these feelings are definitely accelerated in rowing because it is such a privileged and white space to be in.

‘I definitely feel like I am a guest in the space, rather than feeling like I belong here.’

Kyra is still defining her own place in the world. She says she didn’t think about her race, or see herself as any different to her white peers, until just a few years ago.

‘I went to university and, in a way I didn’t even realise I was Black,’ she says. ‘I knew what it meant to be Black, but I didn’t really realise the way the world was set up. And that it made me different because of the colour of my skin.’

Kyra completed a degree in statistics from the University of California, and studying in America was a huge wake-up call. She says the people there made sure she was aware of the colour of her skin. There, it was an unavoidable reality that hammered home the fact that she was ‘other’.

‘I see it as a journey of grief, I feel like I have missed out, or that I lost something in those years where I didn’t consciously think about,’ she says. ‘And now I’m kind of angry about it. But obviously, I can’t be the angry Black woman.

‘It has been a whole journey of understanding. Now, I’m trying to work out how to approach these issues in an effective way that will actually move the conversation forward.’

Kyra started learning her craft on indoor rowing machines at school. She competed regionally and nationally in indoor competitions and started doing well, so she joined her local rowing club – which happened to be a high performing centre in Nottingham.

‘I was really lucky to find myself in a place with really good facilities. I really kind of fell into rowing, which is very different to a lot of my peers,’ she tells us.

‘Most people I row with have some rowing lineage in their family, or they are rowing properly right out of school, or they go to the Henley Regatta.

‘Henley Regatta is just this unworldly thing. It is a bunch of posh, rich people talking about rowing with their glasses halfway down their noses. So the whole world of rowing ends up being these kind of incredibly privileged circles.

‘It is incredibly inaccessible. It’s a very elitist sport.

‘Rowing does get more diverse once you get to the elite level. At this level, it is less about people doing it for status, or because their mates do it, so there is slightly more variety, and it becomes more about talent and hard work. But there are definitely still remnants of that privilege.’

One of the key reasons why rowing is still so elitist at every level is because of the inherent inequalities that exist in accessing the sport.

In rowing, not only do you need specialist kit and access to a boat and a body of water, you also have to pay for coaching, training camps and membership at a rowing club that can cost hundreds every year.

Kyra says that if it wasn’t for official funding, the sport would only be an option for people who have access to a generous and vast ‘bank of mum and dad’.

‘Elite sport is very much a world of privilege,’ she says. ‘If you go to a private school you’re significantly more likely to make it to the Olympics, which is something people don’t often realise.

‘That’s why we are so lucky to have funding from UK Sport. It means we can focus on being athletes without having to have second jobs or rely on our parents. We literally live off the funding we get – lottery funding too – and that does help in making the sport more accessible for different kinds of people.’

Kyra says this diversity is crucial. She believes it is about so much more than optics, or a tick-box exercise. Sports need to reflect society, says Kyra, and they can’t do that if the public only sees elite athletes who are white and privileged.

‘It’s extremely important to have more of a diverse group of people in sport, because sport is a microcosm of wider culture. It is not some random thing that’s not relative to the rest of the society around it,’ Kyra explains.

‘Sport is a pedestal for what we want society to look like, what we want the elite people in society to look like. When we represent at the Olympics, it should be a representation of our actual country, not just the people who have the money to buy a £10,000 boat.’

Kyra may be the only non-white athlete on her team, but she wants to use her position to make positive change. She is determined that future generations of rowers won’t have to face the isolation that she has.

‘Sport prides itself on being fair. That is it’s whole entity. Fairness, an equal opportunity to win, to succeed. But while there is so much emphasis on making the games fair, there isn’t enough fairness in the systems that allow people to start in the first place.

‘This message of diversity and equal opportunity in sport is so important to me. I often think about my “why” and my motivations for what I do, and I feel like I am lucky to have such a huge thing driving me forward. But then it’s also a huge burden, but it is worth it.

‘I’m in the privileged position to be a role model. I really want to help to make sure the next generation of rowers don’t all look the same.’

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