The Story of Teaching Swimming to Liberian Kids

04 July, 2024 | Blog

Todd Aiken is an adventurer who has travelled to over 175 countries, but in Jan 2023 he embarked on an adventure that he did not expect or plan. According to his words, it is the most emotional and impactful adventure he has ever taken in his 43 years of adventure travel. Below, you can follow the story of Todd Aiken.

How it all Began

I am flying back to Liberia, West Africa now for my third time in 18 months with my 18 year old daughter Natalie and her best friend Siena.  We will be teaching 50-60 Liberian children mostly from remote villages how to swim.  We will also meet my old mountain climbing friend Jon Lenchner in Liberia who will also teach swimming.

This adventure started when I told my son’s football coach that I was planning to travel through West Africa to finish off visiting all West African countries, so he then introduced me to Ollie White, the founder of Beautiful Beginnings School in Liberia, and Dave Irby, the founder of Soccer Surge, an NGO that brings war torn communities back together using football to heal communities.

I visited the school in January 2023 and brought 23 football uniforms, 30 pairs of shoes and 10 iPads /Chromebooks to the school.  I noticed the black banner and found out that a 12 year old boy had just died due to drowning during their winter break.  I told Ollie my daughter is a swim instructor and an All American competitive swimmer and that I could bring her back and teach kids to swim.  She loved the idea, but I think she thought that it was just wishful thinking.

In April, 2023, my daughter Natalie was in a terrible car accident.  A driver ran a stop sign, hit my daughter’s big SUV straight into the drivers side triggering all airbags and flipped her SUV upside down.  The police and firemen were amazed she was not killed.  My daughter was removed while suspended upside down.

Miraculously, Natalie was bruised and sore but she wasn’t seriously hurt, but this happened only a couple of days before her big swim championships when major college coaches were watching her times and deciding to offer her a spot on their college team.  I am surprised she even swam in these swim championships due to her bruising and soreness, but she did since she was the team captain. Sadly, she did not swim as well as she had hoped so she did not get the college offers she dreamed of.  She was very sad.

I have experienced my own life challenges.  A day after running the San Diego half marathon and training for the NY marathon in 1990 at the age of 28, I was diagnosed with cancer.  I had recently climbed Kilimanjaro and I was considering attempting the 7 summits before my cancer.  After two operations, one over 9 hours long, my cancer was in remission but they said I may never run again.

They were wrong – I ran the NY marathon the following year in 1991 in 3 hours 46 minutes.  I decided I wanted to climb the other 7 summits with another cancer survivor.  I climbed Mt Kosciusko with a British cancer survivor in 1991.  A month later I climbed Mt Elbrus with a Soviet doctor because at the time the Soviet Union would not tell patients they had cancer.  I believe I am the first cancer survivor to climb the highest mountain in Europe-Mt Elbrus- as a cancer survivor in 1991.  I also climbed Aconcagua.

I told my daughter Natalie we should go to Liberia and teach girls to swim.  If life throws lemons at you, make lemonade!  I found out that Africa has more drowning deaths than any other region in the world.  My philosophy is if you are sad or depressed, go help someone!  It makes you feel better.   My wife and daughter were not immediately enthusiastic about the idea, but I was persistent.

Going to Liberia

In August 2023, my daughter and I travelled to Liberia with 110 donated girls swimsuits. We called our program Swim Liberia and made certificates to be presented to the students at the completion of the program.  Ollie had to transport and houses the 24 girls from the remote villages to her school closer to the pool for the five day swim clinic. None of the kids had ever been in a pool and many of the kids were extremely fearful.

By the fifth day, all of the kids were swimming, laughing, diving and having the time of their lives.  It changed my daughter’s perspective and her outlook on life.  ECOWAS radio station interviewed us and broadcast the story to 15 West African member countries.  We believe it is the first program of its kind in West Africa.  I had tears in my eyes watching them swim!!!

The program was a huge success!  Many of the parents at the Liberian school and outside the school wanted to sign up their kids for the next year.  People in our community in the US were very enthusiastic and supportive of the program. They wanted to know if we were returning and were offering support.  I decided to create a formal not for profit called “Swim Liberia” approved in California.

We decided to expand the program and invited two more swim instructors to help teach more kids to swim.  My daughter’s best friend Siena, also an accomplished competitive swimmer and whose father swam for the US in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, is joining us.  Roque Santos, her father, is very involved in swimming all over the US, so we don’t know where this programming is headed.

For our second swim clinic in Liberia, we plan to teach 50-60 kids to swim, so we have raised funds on GoFundMe since it is expensive to get the students and swim instructors to a pool in Liberia for a swim clinic.

We also have people talking with the Liberian Minister of Sports and the Liberian Swimming Federation.   We are also trying to have swim clinics for competitive swimmers.  Liberia has never had an Olympic swimmer, so we would like to help create a competitive program to eventually develop the first Olympic swimmer from Liberia.   Our goal is to make this program sustainable and to do it every year.

Ollie was just interviewed on ECOWAS radio again discussing the swim program and trying to attract competitive swimmers for a competitive swim clinic.

My daughter Natalie will be swimming for Georgetown University in Washington DC this fall- her dream school!!!  A year after her accident, my daughter and her seven teammates placed second in the state of California swim championships – a first for her high school.

I am also bringing three large bags of football donations from my son’s football club Ballistic United in Pleasanton, CA.  The club had a Liberian football donation drive and received 54 football cleats/ AstroTurf shoes, 5 goalie gloves, balls and other football equipment.  For almost all of these Liberian players, these will be their first football cleats.  I am excited to see the players in person receive these donations.

My advice to my fellow travelers and adventurers on NomadMania is that we are incredibly lucky to travel the way we do.  Help the communities we visit if you can.  Bring donations to charities and NGOs in developing countries when you can because it is so expensive to ship goods to these places.  I checked and it would have cost over $2000 USD to ship the 23 football uniforms from California to Liberia.  I generally travel light so I don’t use my free two bag limit.  It will change their lives and your life.  It is the most rewarding adventure I have ever had……and I am still experiencing it and don’t know where this is going.

                                                               Our five large bags with donations.

Second Time to Liberia

We conducted our second Swim Liberia clinic during the period June 10-14, 2024, and it was a huge success in many ways!!! We raised $6900 to pay for the children’s costs and surpassed our goal.  Natalie, Siena and Jon did a fantastic job in teaching over 60 people to swim, which is an increase from 24 girls last year. 50 of the swimmers were children from Beautiful Beginnings School and this year we had both boys and girls. The other swimmers were children that heard about our clinic on ECOWAS radio and signed up.

Two big surprises – first, two ladies in their 50s/60s who heard about the program on the radio wanted to learn to swim so they learned. It just shows that it is never too late to learn to swim. The second surprise was that we had two competitive swimmers. One swimmer swam for Liberia in the Pan Africa games recently. He is a sprinter, so Natalie taught him the dolphin kick to improve his times.

Unfortunately, Liberia’s membership to compete in these big games has been suspended. I met with the President of the Liberian Swim Federation, and they just don’t have the money to pay the $600 in membership fees for the country. We discussed solutions to this challenge.

Two radio reporters from two different radio stations observed our swim clinic and broadcast our story to 15 West African countries.  An ECOWAS reporter interviewed me, the three swim instructors and several of the students who participated last year.

Exciting news—The Minister of Sports who was just appointed by the newly elected President heard about Swim Liberia, and he asked to meet with me. I brought up our desire to help build the first public pool in Liberia since currently there is no public pool in the country. The Minister promised land for an Olympic pool that can be built next to the National Football Stadium, and he will give his full support. This is incredibly exciting news since having the land and the political support to build the pool is half the challenge.

The Minister and the Assistant Minister also attended our Swim Liberia graduation ceremony.  They observed the last day of swim lessons and were amazed by the students swimming abilities.  They then presented certificates to several of the students.

Delivering the football donations was another adventure – see attached photos.  Amos from Surge Soccer picked me up in a keh keh, a three wheel scooter, to deliver the three bags of football donations to three football academies.  There were four grown men including myself and three large bags of donations in the keh keh.   We had to put two bags on the roof without them being tied down because there was no room.  The first club (in Orange) has about 50 players and the coach’s main focus is to keep the players off the streets and off drugs.

They play on a dirt field and no goalie gloves – a very poor community.  None of the players have ever owned football cleats.  One player had unmatching shoes and another had a sock OVER the shoe to keep the shoe together.  It was a surprise to the coach that we were bringing football donations – the players smiles were infectious.

The second club is a bigger academy with the range of players ages U10-U17, and they are a competitive club.  They work closely with Surge Soccer and Surge Soccer had recently given some cleats to the club but not nearly enough for every player.  It took an hour for the keh keh in the three wheeler to get back to my hotel, so it was a remote area.


After the swim clinic, I flew back to Belgium with my daughter and her friend for a couple of days of relaxation in Brugge and Ghent. I then put my daughter and her friend on a plane back to San Francisco and I returned to Africa using a frequent flyer ticket.  I went to Angola to visit the Calandula Falls and then to Pointe Noire in the Republic of Congo.

I am now contacting foundations and sources of funds to build the first public pool in Liberia.  Our estimate is an Olympic pool will cost around $500,000 USD to build.  If any of you have a funding source that you recommend I contact, please send an email to me I am optimistic that we can raise the funds to build the first public pool in Liberia!

You can also watch the project in the video below.

We plan to return to Liberia next year and hopefully teach even more students to swim.  If we are successful in building the first public pool, we plan to develop a year-round swim program and a competitive program which will mean we will need to bring more swim instructors to Liberia.  I hope this is just the beginning of this incredible adventure.