Montreal

'It's very symbolic': Haitian Olympian teaches youth to swim at the Big O

Naomy Grand'Pierre is back to her community by teaching young people to swim for free at Montreal's Olympic Stadium.

Naomy Grand'Pierre hoping to help her community by offering free swimming lessons

Noamy Grand'Pierre is a Montreal-born Haitian-American Olympic athlete. (CBC)

Olympic athlete Naomy Grand'Pierre's mother says it's "pure coincidence" her daughter dove into the swimming world.

It was three drownings in the family that prompted her to enroll her five children in swimming lessons.

Clio, Naomy's mother, noticed older kids practicing for competitions after her daughter's lessons.

"I said, 'Naomy, instead of sitting there waiting for your brothers, we're going to put you in those practices,' and that's how it became a family sport," said Clio. 

By the age of 19, Grand'Pierre was the first female swimmer to represent Haiti in the Olympics, when she competed in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Now, Grand'Pierre says, teaching people to swim is her way of helping uplift her community. She is giving young people free swimming lessons at Montreal's Olympic Stadium.

A study by the Lifesaving Society of Canada found that new Canadians are four times more likely to be unable to swim than those born in Canada. (CBC)

'So many drowning cases'

Grand'Pierre's mother Clio told Radio-Canada that the family has been promoting swimming in the Haitian community at home and abroad.

"In the Haitian community, there aren't very many swimmers, it's really a minority, and that's why there are so many drowning cases, not only in Haiti, but among the diaspora as well," said Clio.

A study by the Lifesaving Society of Canada found that new Canadians are four times more likely to be unable to swim than those born in Canada. It also found more than half of immigrant parents are afraid their children will drown.

At the stadium, Naomy Grand'Pierre, who is on a swimming scholarship at the University of Chicago and hopes to qualify in the 2020 Olympics, is all smiles as she guides the five children in the lesson through the exercises. 

Noamy Grand'Pierre feels it's important to teach young people in her community how to swim. (CBC)

"Remember, streamline. Okay, and then we'll do the flutter kick," she says as the kids laugh and splash away. "Perfect, yes!"

It was not lost on the family that only a couple hundred metres away more than 1,000 Haitian asylum seekers were being temporarily housed. 

Grand'Pierre says it's part of the reason she wanted to host the lessons at the stadium pool. "It is very symbolic," she said. 

"It's a big deal … to come back and give back to the community and teach people how to swim," she said.

A dual U.S.-Haitian citizen, Grand'Pierre was born in Montreal and was also raised in Atlanta, Georgia.

A group of children take swimming lessons at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. (CBC)

On top of her training, she has been helping build pools in Haiti. 

"One by one, we can start changing a culture in Haiti so that everyone sees the importance [of knowing how to swim] and even if it's just to learn how to swim and then you never swim again, I'll still be happy with that," she said.

As for whether she saw any future Olympian athletes in her group, she said, "Anyone can become an Olympian, just like anyone can learn how to swim."

"It just takes the right determination."

Giving back

Clio said it was the family's way of contributing to their community, which has been affected by the 2010 earthquake, that killed more than 200,000 people, a hurricane in 2015 and years of political instability.

"If these people are in the stadium, it's because they're looking for opportunity," she said, noting many had walked for kilometres at a time and crossed several borders — not just the one between Canada and the United States, where thousands have been pouring through in the past couple months.

Clio Grand'Pierre decided to enroll her children in swimming lessons from an early age. (CBC)

"Haitians are hard workers and I believe that if these people, they travelled all the way to come here, imagine if you give them the opportunity to work and make a life for themselves."

Clio says success in the Haitian community abroad and at home means success for the country. 

"The more Haitians we help succeed, the more Haitians will be available to come home with the resources necessary for us to rebuild our country," she added.

with files from CBC's Nancy Wood and Radio-Canada

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