Cover Libby Alexander, co-founder and CEO of Splash Foundation (Photo: SixSixty Studios)

From encouraging domestic workers to take the plunge, to teaching low income and special needs children the swimming basics, Splash Foundation has recently expanded its programmes from Hong Kong to Singapore and has international ambitions to make swimming accessible to all

It’s a blazing hot Thursday morning at Wong Chuk Hang's outdoor public pool on Hong Kong Island’s Southside, and the latest cohort of domestic workers is being assessed in the twelfth and final session of their beginner learn-to-swim programme. A nervous excitement is palpable, as is the supportive environment that the women have created, cheering on their fellow students as they each demonstrate their command of a range of water-based skills.

But the Splash Foundation’s free courses don’t simply teach these women, the majority of whom are Filipino, how to swim. They are also a place to build community.

“I don’t think I appreciated how few opportunities [domestic workers] have to meet and make close friends and have strong bonds,” says Splash co-founder and CEO Libby Alexander. “So, once they start, they don’t want to stop. And, honestly, it’s not necessarily about the swimming; it’s about having that friendship group. You go through this experience together—they come in so fearful, and that makes the bonds with each other tighter.”

Testing the water

Alexander co-founded Splash in 2015 with marathon swimmer Simon Holliday—Holliday’s accomplishments include swimming from Hong Kong to Macau in 2014, the second individual to do so, and being the first man to swim around Hong Kong Island in 2017.

On moving to Hong Kong, Holliday had witnessed the gatherings of domestic workers on Sundays in the city’s streets and wondered whether they might be in search of something else to do. He had also noticed that even when he saw domestic workers at the beaches on their one day off, few would actually go in the water. He spoke to some and realised that many didn’t know how to swim, so he proposed an idea to some fellow swimmers, Alexander included, and she bit. Splash’s first learn-to-swim programme was born and proved to be just the beginning.

“We saw the swim skill results and we realised that teaching someone the basics of swimming is not that hard. But then it was the empowerment and watching the women change within that 12-week period,” says Alexander, who saw the attitude, mindset and what these helpers believed was possible transform during the course of the programme. And there was the social connection, too. For both sides—teacher and student—once they started neither wanted to stop. At the end of that first programme, 28 of the 30 women enrolled in the course asked, “Where can we sign up again?”

And so, one course became two and then four, and Alexander and Holliday realised they had stumbled on something with huge potential.

A journey begins

A few days after that final assessment, on the following Sunday at 9am, enrolment for the next round of Splash swim classes for domestic workers was due to open. These beginners programmes usually fill up within as few as six minutes. Some domestic workers in Hong Kong have been waiting as many as four years to get into the courses.

The beginners programme teaches participants to float and be comfortable in the water, gaining water confidence and learning how to stay in control and be a safe, efficient and confident swimmer.

Many of Hong Kong’s domestic workers hail from the Philippines or Indonesia, both places with extensive coastlines, where one would think growing up would offer opportunities to learn to swim. “Many of them say swimming in the Philippines is a wealthy person’s activity. If you don’t have money, you don’t take swim lessons and you don’t know how,” says Alexander.  “And on top of that parents who don’t know how to swim and don’t have the resources for lessons, put the fear of God into their kids to stay away from the water.” Often, for Alexander and her team of volunteers, they are not just teaching swimming but helping students overcome a longstanding fear of the water.

The journey for students at Splash doesn’t always end with the course. Splash also trains its graduates as coaches. Twenty-eight graduates have so far been trained as coaches, with a further seven in the latest cohort, while others take on the role of swim captains to help on deck during classes, advise on equipment and answer questions.

A simple solution

An estimated 4.4 billion people worldwide don’t know how to swim and, according to the World Health Organisation, drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death globally. Often, the places with highest drowning rates are those that lack access to swimming lessons.

Alexander feels that the Splash solution is simple—particularly as it doesn’t involve professional coaches. “You can never tackle the problem of the billions of people that don’t know how to swim through professionals, because either people don’t have the money, or there aren’t enough coaches,” says Alexander. Instead, she has taken people who know how to swim, predominantly volunteers, and taught them how to teach prescriptive programmes that instil in students the basics and the safety, if not perfect technique.

In addition to teaching helpers, in 2016 Splash launched its kids programmes, partnering with local community organisations and charities to bring, in this case, professional swim training to under-resourced children. In 2021, they began offering classes to children with special needs too, with the help of a grant from the Hong Kong Jockey Club. To date, Splash has taught more than 4,000 domestic helpers how to swim (of a population in Hong Kong of 400,000 domestic workers) and nearly 1,000 kids. Splash is not just a charity for domestic workers, says Alexander, but rather, “it’s swimming for groups that just don’t have access".

This year, the organisation has tried to make swimming accessible to more with the launch of its Learn To Swim course on YouTube, which is the only free video series on YouTube that shows the full progression of learning how to swim for absolute beginners. It also acts as a supporting tool for those on Splash courses who are keen to practice outside scheduled classes, which take place weekly either in one of Hong Kong’s public swimming pools or in swimming pools loaned out by international schools.

Uncharted waters

In September, Splash expanded to Singapore, launching its first programmes for domestic workers there. And Alexander hopes this growth is only the beginning.

“What excites me about Splash is I see it on an international level. Why can’t you franchise this? No one has done free swim lessons, water safety and water confidence at an international level,” says Alexander. “You have the Red Cross to a certain extent, but why can’t Splash be the Habitat for Humanity or the Peace Corps for swimming? Because you have pockets of people that know how to swim everywhere. So there should be no reason why you can’t bring swim lessons and the programme.”

After Singapore, she has been considering where to go next, whether that’s the Philippines or Indonesia, where there are a number of Splash graduate coaches, or the UK or US, to where various Splash volunteers have returned, because even in urban populations there are low-income pockets lacking access to swimming lessons.

“Half of the world’s population doesn’t know how to swim, to which some people might say, 'Fine, maybe they don’t want or need to learn'. But, a hell of a lot of them want to learn. So, why not? It’s such a simple thing. Even if you take the skilled piece out—it’s the empowerment, the social connection. That’s what gets me excited. It’s the stuff that lasts beyond Splash.”

Changing lives

So, what is it about swimming specifically that is so special? Sports generally have both physical and mental benefits and most also bring people together.

“I think about this a lot,” says Alexander. “Swimming is different from other sports. The physiology of when your body is floating and when you’re submerged in water, the impact of cold water on mental health and fighting depression—I think there are some unique properties to swimming. But also, as an adult, there are very few ways to put yourself in an environment that totally scares you. Perhaps public speaking or jumping out of a plane. But for people that don’t know how to swim, it’s the scariest thing. So, if you put yourself in that situation and you succeed, what that does to your mindset I really do think is life-changing.”

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