Womens Swimming Project

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Thursday 18 December 2014

From: Christina Fonfe

Received by: Email.

Ten years of the Sri Lanka Women’s Swimming Project

A blog by the Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives

The Asian Tsunami of 2004 silently drowned a quarter of a million people. In Sri Lanka, over 35,000 people lost their lives. OXFAM reported that 80% of those who drowned in the tsunami in Sri Lanka were women and children. Culturally, women and girls in rural Sri Lanka do not swim, even though the country is an island; they have little experience of entering more than knee-deep water. Up to three people a day drown on the beaches, lakes and rivers of Sri Lanka, more than die of dengue fever.

When Christina first came to Sri Lanka, she gave swimming lessons to children in refugee camps as a life skill, not a luxury. But when she discovered that many women were unfamiliar with swimming, floating and surviving in the water and unable to save their children in an emergency, she founded the Sri Lanka Women’s Swimming Project to teach any girl or women over the age of 13 year how to swim.

The coconut plantation pool in Weligama

The Project began in a derelict coconut plantation pool in Weligama, where the first thousand women learned to swim and the first six qualified as swimming teachers. After two years, the plantation was sold for development and the Project reverted to renting out-of-season villa and hotel pools up and down the South coast between Weligama and Galle, teaching women from the villages around them. To cover the costs, Christina rented out her UK home and leased a villa on Koggala Lake and then beachfront premises in Ahangama.

In 2012, the British High Commission donated a 12-metre portable fabric pool which has given the Project much more flexibility. In parallel, the Project has taught 40 to 60 students at a Women Only Day in the Lighthouse Community Pool in Galle since 2008 and also taught selected villa and hotel staff to swim and carry out pool-side rescues and CPR.

The British High Commission donated this 12-metre portable fabric pool

By stepping back a generation from children, the project creates adults who can ensure that their children also learn to swim and supervise them when they do. Teaching focuses on survival and keeping airways open by making the ability to Float-and-Breathe on the back for extended periods the first and instinctive skill to be learned. After that, it is easy to teach the different strokes. Initially, students are taught on a one-to-one basis. They are only considered safe in a swimming pool when they can jump in out of depth, float on their backs for 10 minutes, swim any stroke for 100 metres and then climb out of deep water to safety, unaided and without encouragement, for the award of their icanswimcanyou certificate.

To date, over four thousand women and girls have learned to swim; twelve of those have gone on to become internationally qualified swimming teachers some abroad and some in Sri Lanka and three are supporting themselves at university through swimming.

Presenting Indu, Habaraduwa village girl winner of a State Scholarship to read law in Colombo with her International Swimming Teacher’s Certificate.

Learning to swim has given these Sri Lankan women safety and knowledge in and around water and empowered them by boosting their self-esteem and confidence and improving their communication skills, mental health and fitness.

Not even chemo-therapy for cancer in 2006-7 could interrupt Christina’s drive to teach swimming in Sri Lanka, seen here with the De Silva sisters, Sanduni (now in Dubai) and Olympian Julian Bolling, for presentation of their first Teaching Certificates.

Project swimmers gather around Christina as she makes the first cut into the celebratory ‘Swimming Pool’ cake complete with fish-like TI swimmers.

Christina is presented with a golden sapphire ring atop a personalized gluten-free cake in recognition of her decade of devotion to drowning prevention and teaching swimming in Sri Lanka

Pauline Wijesinghe, in red shirt, kneeling, shares a joke with the Project’s STA teachers.

To the delight and enthusiastic applause of her swimming teacher colleagues, Dinusha de Silva, the Project’s very first STA student swimming teacher and TI swimmer at the age of 14, is still the only swimmer present who can best the full, furious power of the Project’s ‘Fast Lane’ swim current generator. Dinusha is one of the Project’s key English translators and her entire family have been staunch supporters of the Project: Mom as administrator, Dad as driver, sister as swimming teacher and young brother as wannabe swimming teacher too.

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