CGC Intern Builds Learn To Swim Program In Tonga

Ella Mawdsley, who hails from Fort Smith, N.W.T., is one of 15 young Canadians working abroad under Commonwealth Games Canada’s Capacity Support Program (CSP). Having completed a year-long placement in Lesotho in March 2011, Ella is now serving with the Tonga Commonwealth Games Association in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, until March 31, 2012.

Tonga has one big swimming pool – the ocean. On a sunny day at the American Wharf in Nuku’alofa, hundreds of Tongan children play in the water, diving and flipping off the point. Yet very few actually know how to swim. They’re uncomfortable in water above their waist, and there is no program to teach children in Tonga the basics of water safety and swimming skills.

In Canada, I taught swimming lessons for close to six years and saw the difference a bit of water confidence can make. Now, in a partnership with the National Triathlon Federation and the National Swim Federation in Tonga, I’ve started teaching swimming lessons to Tongan children. On Saturdays, we hold a free drop-in class at the American Wharf. With the help of some volunteer parents, we offer a 30-minute swim lesson and then an aquathon (run-swim-run) race for any child who wants to join. Most days, between 20 and 30 children participate. On Mondays, we hold a swim class. Parents can register their children in either a beginner or intermediate/advanced class, depending on their child’s skill level. I teach these classes with local volunteers, who not only help with instructions but translate from English to Tongan. This program has been so popular that we have a wait list for three additional classes.

I want all Tongan children to have the opportunity to learn to swim, particularly because they live on an island. So, with the Triathlon and Swim Federation, we are taking the program I instruct on Mondays and turning it into Tonga’s own Learn to Swim program. With the help of funding from FINA, the international governing body for swimming, we will run a certification course for swim instructors in early 2012. 

Through donations from my home town of Fort Smith, N.W.T., we have kick boards, goggles and other basic swim equipment to aid in skill development. The lesson plans and report cards will be the template for instructors to use for all classes, and we hope to find a sponsor for badges for the three levels – beginner, intermediate and advanced – so each child can leave the program with a report card and badge to mark their progress.

I am extremely excited to be developing a Learn-to-Swim program for Tonga, which will give Tongans the basic skills to be water smart and give every child in the Kingdom an opportunity to learn to swim.The feedback I’ve had from parents on the progress of their children so far helps me realize that I’m making a difference and giving something back to the Kingdom that has given me so much.