As a competitive swimmer in my youth and now a swim instructor, I dream of one day living in a tropical country and teaching local kids how to swim. I got that chance in 2015 as an English Language Fellow, a 10-month Fellowship with the Department of State that sent me to Benin.
Coming from California, I was instantly drawn to the white sand beaches but when I saw the ocean, something was amiss. The vastness was emphasized by the fact that there wasn’t a boat, kayaker or even a swimmer in sight. What I didn’t know then was that in this part of West Africa, no one swims in the ocean.
Maybe that is why the Beninese allowed the Chinese to build the Stade de l’Amitie (Friendship Stadium) back in 1982. Comprised of two 50-meter lap pools and a diving well with a 10-meter platform, a new dream was born: Benin, the Swimming Capital of West Africa. Sadly, now the derelict 10-meter platform stands as a symbol of what could have been.
Today, the “Stade” functions but the public has long since stopped going there. Still, it survives as Benin’s Olympic swimming training facility. The last few Olympics have seen Beninese swimmers compete in the 50-meter freestyle event also called the “splash and dash”.
Narcisse Alognisso, the swim Stade’s swim coach, is a constant presence walking the decks 5 mornings a week leading this swimmers through his workouts. Two of his swimmers qualified for last year’s Olympics at Rio: Jules Bessan and Laraiba Seibou. Neither swimmer got out of their heats, but for both it was an experience of a lifetime.
There was a small flicker of hope that the Stade may be renovated when the government established the Beninese Swim Federation in 2000. However, to date, nothing has happened. But, the Federation continues to pay Narcisse’s salary which allows him to travel throughout Benin to find promising young swimmers.
The hardest part of his job is convincing the swimmer’s parents of the importance of training for the Olympics. In the harsh environment of Benin, it takes a lot to become an Olympic swimmer. One has to find time to practice when most are busy a making a living by any means necessary. Some of his swimmers have become a part of Naricisse’s family, living with him for years.
Returning to the Stade last year, I actually got to jump in the pool and swim a few laps with his team. I showed Narcisse the story that was published in the local paper. I told him by sending a swimmer to the Olympics, he is making the world a better place. He nods. When I tell him I hope that one day the club will produce a medal-winner, he laughs.
The author, Dan Airth, is from Seal Beach, California. He founded the non-profit Swim Benin to promote swimming and water safety in the West African country in 2016. Find out more information by visiting Dan’s website at [email protected] or visit his facebook page Swim Benin. You can also donate to the gofundme campaign Help Benin Swim.