Horrified by the number of Cambodians who drown daily, one group is equipping nannies with survival skills in the water. Editor Marissa Carruthers meets the women who are swimming to success. Photography by Charles Fox.

Every day, six Cambodian children drown – this figure is driven by the lack of locals who can swim; shocking given the Kingdom is a country where many rely on the sprawling waterways for survival.

Compelled into action 12 months ago by the alarming Swim Safe statistic, and the fact many nannies looking after children around swimming pools not only lack the ability to save a child but also harbour a fear of water, AUSTSWIM-qualified swimming teacher Simone Antoney and Ruth Penfold, community first aid nurse for Phnom Penh, launched a 10-week programme taking in poolside CPR and simple swimming skills, to help tackle the problem.

“It was aimed at any caregiver who supervises children around water and wanted to improve or indeed learn how to save a life if a drowning occurs, as well as overcoming fear of the water,” says Antoney, recalling a group of women – mostly above the age of 40 – cautiously dipping their heads under the water for the first time.

“Being Australian, water is second nature to me,” she adds. “As children we sit in a bath and tip water over our heads. We make whirlpools, have handstand competitions or play Marco Polo. These ladies have not been exposed to any of those things so it was a challenge to teach them as we had to overcome their fear of water first.”

Going for Gold

Maoy takes a huge gulp of air, stretches her arms to the sky and launches headfirst from her position, perched on the edge of the pool, into the water. She glides gracefully, a few kicks propelling her before she surfaces at the half-way width mark wearing a triumphant grin.

It is hard to believe just 10 weeks ago, the 56-year-old had never dipped her head beneath water. In fact, the very thought froze her with fear. “I had never thought of swimming before,” the nanny says.

However, working with children at a complex complete with a pool, Maoy knew if the children were to fall in the water, she would be left helpless. “I had to do this for the children,” she says.

After hosting the water safety programme, Antoney was approached by a handful of women wanting to continue their swimming sessions. To cater to the trickle of students, the teacher started up free, weekly one-hour lessons, teaching breaststroke, freestyle, floating and diving, among other swimming skills.

“Their determination was, and still is, simply amazing” says Antoney, who recently returned to Australia, handing over the reins to fellow AUSTSWIM-qualified Bianca Sharp. “These are just everyday women doing something we all take for granted in the Western world.”

Passing the Baton
“I have two daughters and I want to be able to teach them to swim as well,” says 42-year-old swim student, Indy, as she bobs in the water. This is another priority for the three women who attend the weekly classes and understand the life-saving imperative of being able to stay above the water.

“There are so many people in Cambodia who cannot swim and I want to help them,” adds Kanneka, 35. She also plans to pass on the swimming and water safety skills she has learnt in class to her family and fellow villagers by holding a series of swimming lessons.

This is the ultimate aim of the group, says Sharp after an impressive session working on the ladies’ freestyle, diving and underwater techniques. “Eventually, we want to see these three as the teachers,” she adds, casting a proud glance at her class, who are perfecting their kicking. “These women are fearless and there’s a real passion in them. I think that’s amazing.”

As well as equipping the group with life-saving skills, watching the ladies learn amid the chaos of splashes and laughter, it’s evident they are gaining much more than just swimming and safety.

“Not only are they learning to swim, but they are getting fit, making friends and having a lot of laughs,” says Antoney. “I hope more women will join in, and we can provide more people with the chance to learn to swim; not just to save a life, but for the pleasure of it as well.”

Water Safety for Nannies meet every Tuesday, from 8am to 9am at Les Jardin du Bassac on Norodom Boulevard. For more information, phone 017 986 178.