First-ever European Aquatics Learn to Swim Conference gets under way in Jurmala

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Wide-ranging presentations and networking the order of the day

The first-ever European Aquatics Learn to Swim Conference was opened today in Jurmala, Latvia by President Antonio Silva. The two-day conference has brought together close to 200 delegates from 28 nations, including Olympians, academics, and experts from across the aquatic community.

“This Conference is the first step to show that European Aquatics will take a leadership role in developing the first Europe-wide standard for learning to swim.

“By finding ways to work with political and commercial partners we aim to promote the social benefits of swimming as a vital and healthy life skill, and to prevent drowning.

“The next two days will allow us to meet, discuss and share ideas to be used both at national and European level.”

These sentiments were echoed in a video message sent by Iliana Ivanova, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth.

Strongly supporting the goals of the conference, she welcomed the ongoing co-operation between the European Union and representatives of our sport.

“We have a shared objective to promote safe swimming and to harness the transformative power of sport. Swimming is a powerful tool to promote equality and inclusion in our society,” she said.

Following the welcome from local authorities, represented by Vladimirs Steinbergs (Director of the Sport Department of Latvia’s Ministry of Education and Science), Janis Ledins (Vice chairman of Jurmala City Council) and Aivars Platonovs (President of the Latvian Swimming Federation) the Conference got off to a dynamic start when a diverse group of former athletes spoke of how learning to swim had transformed their lives.

The athletes included Peter Mankoc, five-time Olympian, World Champion and World and European record holder:

He said: “You do not really enjoy the Olympics when you are an athlete. You do not have time to do that. You are there to do a job. But now that I am a coach, I try to teach my young athletes that the most important thing in sport is to enjoy, and to grow through sport.

“Life has ups and downs and swimming gives you the skills to deal with the hard stuff, to have resilience, to learn to take responsibility and realise that nothing is tough to a swimmer!”

Peter Mankoc, Sabine Hazboun | Photo Kaspars Garda

Yusra Mardini, the swimmer whose inspirational journey from refugee of war-torn Syria to Olympian in 2016 was immortalised in a Netflix movie, also spoke.

Mardini is also a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and was named on 2023’s TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People In the World list.

She said: “When I was going through some very challenging times, swimming was always the home I could take with me everywhere.

“It helped me to deal with trauma. It gave me strength and to have hope. If I wasn’t a swimmer I’m not sure if I’d be brave enough to jump into the water and save other peoples’ lives.”

Fellow Olympian Sabine Hazboun is now working as Olympic Refuge Foundation Programme Support Officer with the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

“For me, swimming is a life skill, a lifestyle way beyond sport,” she said.

“What I learned from swimming, such as dedication, discipline, hard work, and goal- setting are great lessons for life as well.

“Through my work with the Refuge Commission, I am lucky enough to be able to change perceptions about refuges. Show that they are ordinary people – who have dreams and goals. Helping them get access to sport is worth more than a million gold medals to me.”

Aldo Matos da Costa and Aisling McKeever made the first of a twopart presentation outlining the road map for the launch of a European Learn to Swim Framework while the renowned academic Robert Stallman outlined the steps needed to build successful National Learn to Swim Programmes whose priority should be swimming safety.

Aldo Matos da CostaAisling McKeeve | Photo Kaspars Garda

Francois Potdevin, from the University of Lille, presented the ALFAC (Aquatic Literacy for All Children) project, which brings together several European universities, sport and technical experts under the Erasmus Plus banner, to contribute with tools to diagnose, promote and develop aquatic competence in children aged 6-12. The project – which started in 2022 – will run until 2025.

Francois Potdevin | Photo Kaspars Garda

The final session saw three European federations – Belgium (Flemish Swimming Federation), France and Portugal – present their national Learn to Swim programmes which allowed delegates to gain valuable insights into how different approaches can be used to secure similar goals.  

The Conference, which concludes on Sunday, has already achieved its aim of providing a platform and content hub for those studying or teaching sport-related Corporate Social Responsibility activities in aquatics. 

After the main presentations, delegates had the opportunity to meet in two breakout groups which addressed several topics ranging from safety, academic theory, technology and innovation.