Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Just keep swimming!

Since arriving in Tonga, alongside my ‘official’ volunteer role at the Ministry of Agriculture, I have also been volunteering at one of the local swimming clubs, Malolo Swim Club. In Tongan, Malolo means ‘flying fish’ (not to be confused with mālōlō, which means ‘to rest or do nothing’!)

I first heard about the swimming club through one of my volunteer buddies, Sarah, who is now on her second volunteer assignment in Tonga and has also recently married her Tongan moa (boyfriend). Sarah and I arrived in the same volunteer intake in February this year. She mentioned at our pre-departure training that last time she was in Tonga she used to help out with the swimming lessons run by Malolo Swim Club. This struck my interest as I am also a swimming instructor and really enjoy teaching kids to swim, so a few weeks into our time in Tonga, I popped down to the lessons with Sarah on a Wednesday afternoon at the Touliki sea pool to see what was happening.


Malolo’s Learn-to-swim program running at the Touliki sea pool (Pic thanks to: Pou Panuve)

There were loads of kids and only a few teachers at that point, the weather was still hot and attendance was booming. All the teachers are volunteers. When I first arrived at the club, no one had a formal qualification in swimming teaching, but all were keen to help young Tongan kids learn how to swim. They were mostly running off some training from a coach in Fiji, but the program was mostly focussed on competitive strokes.

Since then, three of our teachers have done their Swim Australia Teacher course through the Pacific Sports Partnership (funded by Australian Aid) which has given them some improved skills and a boost in confidence with their teaching. We have also revised their learn-to-swim program to include more focus on water safety and survival.

Growing up in Australia, most of us have been through swimming lessons to some degree, even if just in schools. And water safety is a pretty common message to hear every summer – things like ‘swim between the flags’, ‘never swim alone’, or ‘never leave children unsupervised around water’ are familiar to most of us.

In Tonga however, many people do not know how to swim, even though it is an archipelago surrounded by crystal clear, beautiful waters! Drowning is not uncommon (although the stats are not collected so it’s hard to know the real scale of the problem). Parents and children have very limited water safety awareness – I have seen parents just telling their scared children who can’t swim to jump in the water, and kids frequently jumping headfirst from a height into seawater of unknown depth. I have also heard it is common if someone is in trouble in the water that people will just jump in to try and help them, then get into trouble themselves. So swimming and water safety lessons are something that there is definitely a need for here in Tonga.


Teaching at the sea pool (Pic thanks to: Pou Panuve)

It has been very rewarding to be involved with the learn-to-swim program, the kids really enjoy their lessons and I have seen so much progress in the students’ confidence and abilities during my 8 months here – a testament to the hard work and dedication of the volunteer swimming teachers at Malolo.

We teach in what can be a challenging environment – the open water sea pool is subject to the tides and the weather, and the conditions never the same two weeks running! However, the teachers and students genuinely love the learn-to-swim program, and there are always plenty of smiles and laughs. For some awesome shots and profiles of our Malolo swim babies, you can check out @lifeontheislandphotography on Instagram

As well as the weekly learn-to-swim classes, I have also been helping out with the Malolo squad, three very talented and committed young swimmers – Noelani (13), Finau (15) and Calina (19).


Noelani, Calina and Finau at a fundraising event for their trip to the Samoa Swim Series

Together with Vila and Pou, I have been coaching them a couple of mornings a week at the one 25m pool on the island at Scenic Hotel. It is about 30 minutes drive from town and we train at 6 in the morning. During the dry season it was cold (by Tongan and my tropical acclimatised standards!) and also pitch black! There are no lights in the pool, no lines, lanes or flags, but it’s the best we’ve got, and hasn’t deterred the kids from training (or their incredibly supportive families from transporting them!). Thankfully now it is warmer and getting light earlier!

The squad also do a lot of open water training between two wharves at the foreshore in front of Nuku’alofa, and have mostly been entering open water events this year. They have done a number of distance swims locally to prepare them for these events, such as swimming from Nuku’alofa to the nearby island of Pangaimotu (1.8km or 2.9km depending on start point), or swimming there and back (5km), they have also swum from Holonga to Mounu Island in the lagoon and back again (5km) and their longest challenge was a swim from Nuku’alofa to Fafa Island (6km).

Being on the support kayaks for these swims has been a great way to see a bit more around Tongatapu as well.

As for their competitions, Noelani and Calina represented Tonga in the 5km Open Water at the Oceania Championships in Fiji in June, an amazing experience for them both to compete at a FINA qualifier. All 3 swimmers attended the Samoa Swim Series in August, completing the 5km Pacific Open Water Challenge and the 3-day swim series – Noelani and Calina did the 2km swim on 3 consecutive days, but Finau (the keen bean) upgraded to complete the 4km swim on 3 consecutive days! The Samoa Swim Series looked amaaaaaazing and is now on my bucket list – any open water swimmers out there should definitely look it up!

Most recently, Noelani and Finau competed at the Short Course Central Region Age Group Invitational in Fiji, their first pool competition in over 2 years. They took on 19 events between them in two days, set personal bests in every event and came home with 16 gold and silver medals between them! An amazing effort and we are so proud of them. You can read more about their experience here if you’re interested.

Their next team competition is in January – the 5km Lake Taupo FINA Open Water qualifier, as well as the Anthony Mosse Classic, a long course pool competition in Auckland. I am hoping to be able to attend with them as I’ve unfortunately been unable to get to any of their competitions so far, so fingers crossed we can make it happen!

These three will be the first three homegrown swimmers to represent Tonga on an international stage with Calina heading to the FINA World Swimming Championships (Short Course) in Windsor, Canada in December and Finau and Noelani aiming for the Youth Commonwealth Games in the Bahamas next year. I expect to see big things from them in future, so watch this space.


Caline, Finau and Noelani representing Tonga in the Samoa Swim Series parade (Pic thanks to Pou Panuve)

It has been so awesome to work with the swimming club because everyone involved is so passionate and dedicated. It means the world to me that the club has welcomed me with open arms, we’ve shared many fun times and being involved with such amazing people has added so much to my experience here in Tonga. I’m so glad to have met everyone at the club, my Malolo family, and count them among my closest friends. I am looking forward to the next 3 months in Tonga, and also excited to see what other adventures await in future.

Samoa Swim Series 2017 anyone? 🙂


Thanks to Pou Panuve for many of the photos used in this post – check out more of her amazing shots on Instagram @go.pou

Also, if you are keen to follow what the amazing team at Malolo Swim Club are up to, please check out our Malolo Tonga facebook page .

1 Comment »