Swimming now has a wave of diversity to drown out Little Mermaid protests

Disney has always been at the heart of breaking down barriers in society and swims against the tide in its diverse casting and smashes the patriarchal system out of the water. As Disney celebrates its 100th year, I can’t help but reflect on what Disney has taught me; that anything is possible.

Disney might be fiction, but our youth of today look up to the characters as role models so who Disney represent and how they represent them is real. That means the repercussions of racism and abuse towards Disney characters can be damaging and impactful as racism towards people.

Last week, Disney’s The Little Mermaid hit our screens and I’m excited for the world to see it, but the movie has been a hot topic of conversation over the past year as Halle Bailey, a talented black actor, takes on the role as Ariel. It’s disappointing, to say the least, that waves of complaints and dislikes have come to the surface simply because Ariel was white in the original cartoon movie, but to hear the common myths I’ve been trying so hard to shift for many years in sport has hit me harder than I expected.

Related: The Little Mermaid review – Halle Bailey goes full mermaidcore in Disney’s CGI remake

I grew up with the familiar phrase that “black people don’t swim” and “black people sink in water”, but to still hear these comments regarding a movie in today’s society is very disappointing. I decided to step away from competitive sport last year and it took me a sporting lifetime to say I was proud to be a swimmer, but I know negative stereotypes can act as a barrier to people participating in sport.

Why set your children up to fail in a sport they won’t succeed at? For people of colour, this is the question many parents will ask themselves before putting their children in swimming lessons. Since retiring, I’ve made it my mission to provide opportunities for the disadvantaged and underprivileged children and further eliminate the negative stereotypes around black boys and girls swimming.

The work I’m doing as a Speedo ambassador with our Swim United campaign aims to unite different communities all over the world, to support pupils taking up swimming. I want to work on diversifying sport as a whole and eliminate these barriers to get more representation of all children in grassroots sport.

Related: Little Mermaid’s racist critics pollute magical undersea world with bigotry | Arwa Mahdawi

I’ve visited many schools and seeing young boys and girls faces light up when I speak openly about my journey is something I shall never take for granted. I see the same glow in the young children’s eyes online when they watch the trailer of The Little Mermaid for the first time and see a lifeline of hope, as it fills them with love, confidence in who they are, because they can finally see themselves in roles like this.

I can’t express the true power in being represented on screen and in the media, as representation is a very strong catalyst of all dreams igniting. For many it will show that anything is possible. When I talk about representation, I mean representation of all kinds and sexuality is another factor that’s lacked in sport.

Growing up gay, I was in denial of my sexual orientation and it was easier to pretend I was “normal” to fit in. I soon realised that “normal” is stereotyping and I should be me. It’s so nice to see the younger generation is changing and more and more young people are feeling confident to be themselves. In primary school, I didn’t know one “out” person, but now I have youngsters opening up to me at 12 or 13 telling me they are part of the LGBTQ+ community and it’s wonderful.

Michael Gunning competing for Jamaica in the World Championships in 2017
Former Jamaica swimmer Michael Gunning sees a more diverse world in the sport now. Photograph: Adam Pretty/Getty Images

These comments reminded me a lot of Netflix’s Heartstopper – a TV series that educates, inspires and embraces differences onscreen. Alice Oseman is a talented author who captures a world where differences thrive and being LGBTQ+ is the new “normal”. I tried football and rugby at school and very quickly found it wasn’t the environment for me, but when Charlie joins the rugby team to pursue his crush on Nick, he develops this confidence in the sport that doesn’t tend to be for gay boys and ignites a hope that you don’t have to be a certain type of person to play sport.

Within the series, homophobia is present, but in the way of innocence and a lack of understanding; after all, this is where it comes from and this behaviour is commonly learned. This is a series I could have only have dreamed about watching when growing up, as representation is present like nothing I’ve seen before in mainstream television.

It makes me grieve for people who don’t have the same laws in place as the UK. I represented Team GB and Team Jamaica in my professional career and challenged so many norms. I found it hard at times, but the love from my family and friends got me through. We all deserve that support network and it’s made me fight harder for people in criminalising countries who don’t have that privilege.

Now we have TV shows that allow us to be represented, and sport has people such as myself and Tom Daley who can help pave the way for many; life is never an easy road, but I’m a true believer that if you can see it, you can be it.

• Michael Gunning competed for Great Britain and Jamaica.