In just two editions, the Tahiti Swimming Experience has established itself as an important event in French Polynesia, where it is listed as one of the essential events on the sporting calendar. After the editions in october 2016 ans december 2018, it will now be moving up a gear, becoming an annual meeting. A superb showcase or our destination that is supported by the stars of French natation.
The Tahiti Swimming Experience was an idea that came from the Polynesian swimming champion Stéphane Debaere, who wanted to invite international Olympic swimmers, in particular open water specialists as well as pool swimmers, in order to let them discover Polynesian water conditions. Stéphane had the idea of sharing with these great champions the sensations of open water in and idyllic situation, with the stunning scenery in the forefront of his mind, and his heart. The idea took shape, resulting in the first edition of the Tahiti Swimming Experience, which brought the French swimming elite to the Fenua in October 2016. Among the big names present for the occasion, Camille Lacourt (five-time world champion), Frédérick Bousquet (world champion and four-time European champion) and Florent Manaudou (Olympic champion). Held over a couple of weeks, this edition gave rise to numerous exchanges and sharing, with the population but also with local sportspeople, the idea of these games also being to encourage encounters and inspire our Polynesian talent.
The first edition of the Tahiti Swimming Experience, voted « Best sporting event 2017 » during the ATN-Tahiti Infos challenge, attracted a great deal of media and public interest from the outset. The concept, both touristy and sporty, was centered around the theme « A place, an encounter » and seduced the public as much as the French athletes, who willingly agreed to take part in the second edition, as well as encourage their entourage to get involved. The event was enriched with cultural and touristic discovery, but also by encounters with the local population. The event has become an international showcase for the destination and an excellent tool for promoting open water swimming, which inherently encourages an ethic of environmental protection. This second edition of the Tahiti Swimming Experience was held from the 2-8 of December 2018 with an action-packed program and original formula, which promises a bright future for the event. Even more so because the president of the Tahitian Federation, Sylvain Roux, and also technical director of the event, officially launched open water in French Polynesia (a discipline has been included in the Olympic Games since 2010, with a 10km race), with the support of the French Swimming Federation, that have included the event in the EDF Aqua-Challenge Tournament Tahiti, in order to encourage the development of the sporting discipline in the Fenua. The agenda for this second edition consisted of three days of open water competitions in Tahiti and also Moorea, to which the general public were invited along with sports clubs, business committees as well as schools in partnership with Pisan (a program that promotes social integration through swimming, an initiative that has been in place since 2010 and is a collaboration between the Tahitian Swimming Federation and local districts), that specifically assisted with the development and organization of the event.
The presence of French champions was also an opportunity to hold master classes and personal coaching sessions. Alongside the program, the athletes were invited to participate in various cultural activities: an island tour of Tahiti on Monday, December 3rd, which included a kava ceremony as well as a demonstration of traditional stone-fishing techniques by fisherman from the Tautira district; an offering ceremony on a marae the following day (the Fa’atau Aroha ceremony) aimed to create an intimate connection with the tupuna and atua (the ancestors and gods) in order to receive mana, a sacred force ; and lastly, a mahana arioi on the Wednesday, a day to experience a Polynesian culture and arts, getting into the skin of the ancient Arioi, a forgotten social cast of artists, that were once much adulated for their sporting and cultural prowess, the keepers of traditional art forms.
The team of French swimming stars, come especially this the occasion, the 2018 edition included Camille Lacourt, five-time world champion making a second appearance at this event; Logan Fontaine barely 19 years old but already world and European junior open water champion ; Aurélie Muller, the only woman in the group, a great open water specialist ; MarcAntoine Olivier, Olympic freestyle swimming medalist ; Stéphane Lecat, the French Swimming Federation’s director of open water and ten-times world champion; finally there was Philippe Lucas, the French open water coach, who has an impressive track record of 101 international medals. The first three agreed to answer our questions, starting with Camille Lacourt for whom the first visit to the Fenua had created unforgettable memories: « Polynesia, when you leave, it’s a bit like leaving paradise. I was “wowed” by the first Tahiti Swimming Experience, an experience shared between friends. As soon as they asked me « are you available? », I said « yes » without hesitating. Aside from coming to Tahiti, which is a dream holiday in and of itself, I’m always interested in promoting swimming and health sports. I’ve never been a specialist in open water, but I think it’s a discipline that could become popular, it could « catch-on » like trail-running. At any rate it responds to the increasing demand by people for travel with a purpose, and open water is the total package, it brings together ecological aspects, preservation of the underwater environment… It’s all there and I am, as ever, thrilled to be able to associate my name with these different aspects. ».
The Tahiti Swimming Experience makes an ecological commitment
Firstly, the event aims to reduce the impact of its organization on the environment to a maximum. It is also committed to collaborating with local environmental groups, in order to raise public awareness about the responsible actions to take. During this edition of the event, the Tahiti Swimming Experience chose to spotlight two local associations working in the field: Moorea Coral Gardeners and Nana Sac Plastique.
Tahiti Swimming Experience: interviews of French swimming champions
How did your first stay differ from this second time?
Camille Lacourt: The first year, the participants were either recently retired or recuperating after the Olympic Games, so the program was less intense, despite a lot of training sessions. This year, there were lots of visits and cultural events on the line-up; it’s another reason why we came.
And for you both, it was a first time in French Polynesia, what were your first impressions of the destination and what were you expecting?
Aurélie Muller: I admit, I didn’t know a great deal about it, just a vague notion of lagoons, crystalline water and overwater bungalows… I didn’t even know exactly where it was. But when Sylvain Roux, the director of the Tahitian Swimming Federation, offered us the chance, I made sure to fix the dates (I wanted to be pre-qualified for the next Games in November), before going ahead and not let the opportunity pass me by.
And right from the outset we were given a wonderful welcome. The people are very nice and kind. Everyone is always asking you if you need anything… I’ve really had the impression that I’ve arrived in paradise, surrounded by nature. You can’t escape it here, and for me who likes open water, but find myself more often in a pool, this is a real playground, there’s a real sense of freedom. When you swim near Tautira, you get the impression you’re swimming in a jungle, it’s totally wild. We get the chance to swim in natural environments during competitions, specifically I’ve taken part in world cups held in Argentina, China and Japan, but the waters were never as translucent as they are here.
Logan Fontaine: It’s the longest journey I have ever taken, but I’ve always wanted to come and I’m not disappointed: It really is the most beautiful place that I have ever swum. I love open water for the freedom it gives, and because you are competing directly against your competitors…I’ve already had the opportunity to swim in warm and clear waters, but here the beauty of the surroundings is something else, everything is so preserved, it’s magnificent. And of course, I knew about Teahupoo before I got here, because I surf as well when I have the time for it.
What particularly moving experiences did you have during this second edition of the Tahiti Swimming experience?
Aurélie Muller : Me, I got the opportunity to do my first dive, to 20 meters, discovering a remarkable underwater world at a spot called the Vallée Blanche (editor’s note: the White valley is located outside the lagoon near the town of Faa’a, opposite the airport on the island of Tahiti). It was a first, there were sharks and it was very humbling. You feel tiny, and you get the impression that nature rules here, much more so than in France. We were also lucky enough to take part in some extraordinary experiences organized for the event. The traditional stone-fishing techniques were truly impressive, as much for the team spirit that is required. To catch a lot of fish you must work together, and I think it is a fishing method that is particularly noble and respectful of the environment. The offerings ceremony was also particularly moving. Even if we didn’t understand Tahitian, you could tell by the tone of voice that something important was happening, you could feel the mana and you felt privileged to be there. It was a solemn moment and it brought up lots of strong emotions.
Logan Fontaine : For my part, I really took advantage of the whole thing. You are surrounded by beauty, you can’t take your eyes off it, everything is magnificent, and I have stored away lots of great memories.
Camille Lacourt: The ceremony at the temple (marae), that I had already taken part in two years earlier, was really magical. I like the underlying beliefs, and you feel a great respect for the Earth. Giving an offering to the gods was a really powerful moment; the fact that the people had made the effort to be there was very moving. This connection with nature, the gratefulness, the link to the elements all emanate a great force to which I am particularly sensitive, for me it is like a warrior spirit, the same spirit that I can sometimes feel during competitions, it pushes you forward. It was very powerful. I also love the Tahitian state of mind in general, joined with the “don’t stress it” side of things. The people are so kind, it’s fantastic. You must absolutely keep that. When you come from Paris, you say that it’s here that they’ve got it right here.
What are you taking back with you in your suitcase ?
Aurélie Muller : The bark of a tree given to me as a symbol during the offerings ceremony. Superb moments shared with the team as well; we are all members of the French swim team, we know each other very well because we are used to getting together three or four times a year, but this time it was a truly remarkable experience. As well as the memory of the population that is so welcoming, such kind people. The use of « tu » (informal way of addressing someone in French, editor’s note) puts you immediately at ease, but the respect remains, you feel it immediately…
Logan Fontaine : I admit I was particularly happy to break with the winter routine; it’s great to be able to escape from the cold we have in mainland France and to leave with a great deal of this warmth. I really do hope to be able to come back again.
Camille Lacourt : The first time, I took an ukulele back with me in my suitcase, this time I have a wooden paddle that I bought at the market. It nicely represents my stay and will remind me of my friend Hinatea (Bernardino, editor’s note), va’a champion, with whom I trained a fair bit. I’d love to return every year, but I think that it’d be good if there were different participants, now the event is starting to get established. But if they do contact me, I’ll happily come back.
Source : Magazine Reva Tahiti
Text and interview : Virginie Gillet
Pictures : Johanes Sachsse - Coral Gardener, Grégory Boissy