Despite being partially paralysed by childhood polio, Chay Thida loves to swim.
“At first I thought that without the use of one arm and one leg I would never be able to, but I was inspired by videos of amputees and paraplegic swimmers. I thought to myself ‘I have one good arm and one good leg, so why shouldn’t I swim too?’” Thida, now 33, told The Post.
“I decided to enroll in swimming lessons. The first class was really scary, as it was different from what I had been teaching myself – learning to breathe correctly and be comfortable was difficult,” she said.
Perfecting her breathing techniques and learning to use all of her muscles to propel herself through the water without sinking was a serious challenge for her, but she accomplished her goal. After almost a year of lessons, Thida is a capable swimmer and can protect herself from drowning.
According to a report obtained by The Post, in the first nine months of 2022, 18 Cambodians drowned, including two government officers who lost their lives while rescuing two children.
In addition to the risks to the general public, Thida’s condition is part of the reason that the Survival Swim Club was established in 2018. The club trains in Siem Reap, Phnom Penh and Battambang.
Ek Samedy, 34, the club’s founder, said: “The main problem is the lack of awareness about learning to ‘drown-proof’ oneself, especially in Cambodia, a country rich in water systems.”
In addition to making a living teaching swim classes to everyone from infants to adults, he sees opportunities to help society by training children with disabilities – and the vulnerable – how to be comfortable in the water.
Samedy sought training from the Khmer Swimming Federation in Phnom Penh and also underwent training in Thailand. He recently returned from Bangkok, where he learned water rescue skills.
Giving back to the community
“Although my club is in the private sector, we do a lot to give back to the community. We don’t just think about profit, but what will have the greatest positive impact. For example, we launched a charity program to protect children from drowning in rural areas,” he said.
He knew of many cases where children had drowned, and even some where adults had attempted to go to the rescue, but drowned themselves. This was usually a result of not understanding the correct technique for rescuing a drowning victim, he said.
Survival Swim Club focuses on two main services – teaching private classes to students aged 6 months to 70 years and performing charitable activities with the community. They often work with organisations such as orphanages and outreach centres, and worked with the authorities to train girl scouts in Banteay Srei district.
“We also share information with several villages near major rivers and reservoirs – like the Baray Teuk Thla – as we want to teach people how to protect their children,” he said.
They run workshops on water safety that include theory and practical first aid training, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and rescue techniques.
Attendees practice in the water, first by learning to swim, then moving on to diving and how to tow a drowning person to safety. They also learn important decision making skills. Every situation is different, and leaping into to the water to try and save some one is sometimes not the best course of action. Sometimes calling for help is the first thing that should be done, said Samedy.
“I taught a person whose child got into trouble while swimming. Another person tried to help the kid, but they ended up holding on to each other and both drowned. They could have been saved, but nobody was aware of what was happening until it was too late. In just 90 seconds, it was all over,” he added.
Swimming past disability
Although Thida is strong and loves swimming, it would not have been possible without the correct training, she said.
“Swimming reduces my stress and helps me sleep better – as well as relaxing my nerves. I want to encourage other people who are disabled to have the confidence to try. They should not give up,” she added.
Survival Swim Club is currently offering 100 per cent scholarships to three children with disabilities.
Samedy said disabled students’ biggest challenge was overcoming their own self-doubts and believing they could do it. As they underwent the step by step training, their self confidence grew.
In addition to learning to lessons, the three children also receive free swimming costumes and pool access.
The scholarships are entirely paid for from company profits, with no support from any other party.
To teach students with disabilities, the club generally needs to begin with a clear understanding of the student’s abilities. The first step is assessing how comfortable in the water a student. This is generally done with simple exercises – putting their heads underwater, blowing bubbles and opening their eyes underwater. Understanding the importance of correct breathing techniques comes next.
If the child is paralysed in one leg, for example, then he or she must learn to use the other. Once Samedy has an understanding of a pupil’s strengths and weaknesses, he will decide which stroke is most suitable for them – breaststroke, freestyle or finswimming.
“I used to embarrass myself in the pool by choking and grabbing the instructor’s hair! Now that I have learnt to swim, I receive praise from the people who see me doing laps of the pool,” said Thida.
“It is important that we all receive encouragement – It motivates us to try harder and gives us confidence. This is especially true when the trainers are the ones encouraging us,” she added.
Cambodian parents are less likely to enroll their children in swimming lessons, whereas the majority of foreign parents place a high value on it, said Samedy.
Among the Kingdom’s little swimmers, infant Hong Norakream – just seven months old – has spent three months learning the basics.
His mother Heng Monika took him to the classes so he would get used to sporting activities as early as possible.
“I want him to exercise from a young age so he grows up strong, agile and brave. He was standing up at an early age. Just before he was born, I saw teachers teaching one year old students and thought it would be good for my son. I was sure he was happy in the water, as I took him into the pool with me from a very young age,” she said.
Samedy described the developmental benefits that infants received from swimming lessons.
“First, there is the relationship. Even though they cannot yet talk – they are looking at us and listening. This is an important social connection, and demonstrates that the child is not autistic,” he said.
“Second, there is this physical aspect of the lesson. Between 6 to 12 months is a critical time for their growth. It is the time when they need to develop muscles and gross motor skills, including grabbing, standing and crawling. We encourage them to move their feet, float, and dive in water through patient step-by-step instructions,” he added.
He acknowledged that many Cambodian parents feel that they do not need their infant children to learn to swim, believing it may put pressure on the babies to progress.
Babies’ classes are offered to students between the ages of 6 and 12 months. They learn to dive, swim and float without help, depending on their ability.
The training for children between 6 months and 4 years old is eight 30 minute classes, and costs $126, including the use of a swimming pool in Siem Reap.
For children with disabilities such as cerebral palsy or autism, a one hour lesson is $10.