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The Olympian, the coach and the navigator steering Fiji swimming in a new direction

Two-time Olympian Caroline Puamau in the pool looking at the camera.
Two-time Olympian Caroline Puamau is now striving to inspire the next generation of Fijians to take swimming seriously.

ABC: Joanna Lester

In Fiji, swimming has long been perceived as an elite sport rather than a life skill. But in an island nation with concerningly high drowning rates, three women heading a new learn-to-swim program are working to change that.

Two-time Olympian Caroline Puamau’s entry into the world of swimming was as unorthodox as it was unexpected.

"It was right here at the Olympic Pool in Suva," she recalls fondly. "My Dad was the manager here and, as the youngest child at the age of three, I was thrown into the pool and he told me, ‘start paddling like a dog and you’ll eventually get into it’." 

She did. Caroline competed for Fiji at the Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, and won six Pacific Games gold medals.

Caroline with students in the pool.
Caroline runs a Let’s Swim session for students from Chauhan Primary School in Suva.

Supplied: Fiji Swimming

Two decades on, she is now part of a team of volunteer coaches encouraging the next generation of Fijians to learn to swim.

"I’ve always had a passion for teaching swimming, especially to children," she explains.

"Anyone can just jump in the water and hold an aid (floatation device) but you don’t know what will happen to you when suddenly you don’t have that aid.

"It’s very important to go into the basics, because not only will you know how to swim but you can also save someone’s life in the water."

Fiji’s high rate of drownings (four per month in 2016) has become a major concern in the 332-island country, where the government recently introduced a national drowning prevention strategy.

The Let’s Swim program, for which Caroline volunteers, is working to address the problem. Funded by the Australian Government through the Pacific Sports Partnerships and supported by Oceania Swimming, it runs daily sessions for children in Fiji’s capital and surrounding areas.

Kids swimming with their heads underwater in the pool.
The Let’s Swim program teaches swimming techniques and water safety skills to children aged six to nine.

Supplied: Fiji Swimming

"When we look at the drowning stats in Fiji, the majority are people aged under 19," explains Trisa Cheer, the Let’s Swim program manager for Fiji Swimming, who has been coaching for more than three decades but only began working on the community swimming program this year.

"We’re targeting students aged six to nine so that they can learn the basics, and hopefully the schools will take ownership of the program and continue it as the students progress."

In search of extra volunteers to lead swimming sessions, Trisa enlisted the help of her sister, Maria, a trailblazing sailor who was the first woman in Fiji to attend maritime school in the 1980s.

Having recently retired, Maria now shares her story and swimming skills with young participants.

Maria sitting by the edge of the pool looking into the camera.
Maria was the first woman in Fiji to attend maritime school. Now retired, she volunteers as a swimming instructor for primary school groups.

ABC: Joanna Lester

Yet, despite spending much of her life and career at sea, Maria admits her own grasp of swimming was limited until she was trained as an instructor for the Let’s Swim program.

"I just learnt to swim from going to the beach and trying to find my way around in the pool, but I didn’t learn techniques, it was just swimming," she says.

"I didn’t realise there were so many different ways of swimming, so I have learnt a lot from this and I enjoy teaching the children.

"In the beginning, some of them were scared, they were not water confident, but once they got used to it, it was hard to get them out of the water!"

As well as improving swimming skills, sharing water safety messages, and potentially saving lives, the program also strives to change attitudes about swimming in Fiji.

Trisa explains: "I think people have misconceptions that swimming is for the middle class to higher class, but we’re trying to make swimming accessible to everyone because it’s a life skill for all children, no matter what economic background you come from."

Maria in the pool with students.
Maria says students who are initially scared of the water soon embrace swimming through the program’s activities.

Supplied: Fiji Swimming

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

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