As a former South African Olympic swimmer, what qualities did you develop from the sport?
I started swimming when I was eight and trained every day for six hours until the age of 27, so I think that made me a determined person with a strong spirit.
What does an aspiring athlete need to succeed, and did these qualities serve you well in life?
I wouldn’t be who I am today without my swimming and sport. Every athlete needs to understand the true values of sport, such as discipline, respect for oneself and others, as well as learning to make an effort and instil team spirit. I learned what duty means during my time as an athlete, as well as responsibility towards the country I represented. I think this prepared me well for my current role.
There must have been challenges, such as learning French and Court Protocol, when transitioning from your life as a South African Olympic swimmer to Princess and wife of Prince Albert?
Yes of course, and I embraced these changes with the help of my husband, who has always been my strongest support.
You are passionate about children being water safe.
The Princess Charlène of Monaco Foundation was established in December 2012 and our primary aim is to save children’s lives. It is something I am very passionate about. So many children die every year because they can’t swim. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 400 children and more than 1,000 people drown every day. Some three million children are rescued from drowning every year, with some suffering severe injuries as a result. These figures are terrible. It’s so important to raise public awareness of the dangers associated with water and to teach life-saving techniques to children. The skill of swimming can also be a gift that a person passes on to the next generation.
What are the foundation’s current projects and what projects do you have in the pipeline?
This year will see a continuation of activities in Morocco and South Africa, where our projects have been set up. There’s a busy year ahead as we’re also considering some ambitious projects in India, Bangladesh, Thailand and Mauritania. These are all countries where the number of deaths by drowning is particularly high.
In France, we will be holding a ‘Learn to Swim’ program for 350 under-privileged children, with another water safety day planned in Dinard for 150 children. We are also planning a ‘Swim to Survive’ program in Quebec for more than 3,000 underprivileged eight-year-olds and a ‘Water Safety’ day for young children in Tustin, California.
In Monaco, we will be partnering with the Sea Rescue and First Aid Training Center to train children in first aid and the rules and basic skills of life-saving. This is in addition to swimming lessons, which are already part of the school curriculum.
We are also currently studying low-cost easy-to-instal portable pools that could be the solution for places that lack the financial means to build the traditional concrete or fiberglass pools.
These are all the main projects, but we are studying many more.
There is no way I could do any of this without help and the foundation also has a network of ambassadors in different countries to set up projects and look out for young talent. It would be wonderful if the media supported me in increasing world awareness on the importance of water safety for children and such support would be a good start to enable us to save children’s lives.
What work has the foundation undertaken in South Africa?
In July last year, we established our first ‘Learn to Swim’ program in Durban under triathlete and sports coach, Dominique Donner-Rodd. Already over 130 children have taken part, including children from two orphanages. The foundation also helps promising young sports talents who lack means, mostly financial, to realize their sports potential. We currently have two brilliant young South African swimmers – 12-year-old Khwezi Duma who has represented South Africa in the junior category at the age of 10. She has already won seven gold medals during her short career. Our other star is 11-year-old Zoe Frank, a member of the South African women’s team, who has already broken six records in her category and is training for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
What other organizations are you involved with, apart from the foundation?
I am very proud to be a member of the board of the Princess Grace Foundation USA and I am also Honorary President of Monaco Against Autism. I think it’s very important to support and encourage disabled people and I am Ambassador for the Special Olympics, as well as Peace and Sport. I have also been appointed co-patron of the Giving Organization Trust, a group of South African charities that deal with issues ranging from AIDS among underprivileged children to the protection of the environment. So I’m pretty busy.
As Monaco’s first lady, you also preside over the Principality’s National Day celebrations, the Monaco Grand Prix, the Rose Ball and the Annual Red Cross Ball, and attend many social events with the Prince, such as the recent Winter Olympics. Any tips for coping with such a hectic schedule?
If someone has a tip for me… it will be much appreciated!
Do you follow fashion trends or favor specific designers?
I don’t follow trends and I never wear something to try make a statement.
What is the ‘must have’ item of clothing or accessory in your wardrobe?
Jeans and a white t-shirt.
Where is your favorite holiday destination in Africa?
Anywhere the sun is shining.
Lastly, having successfully taken your place on a tough global stage under the glare of the world media, what advice do you have for young women starting out in the business world?
To be themselves always, and to remember the words of Nelson Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”