The Princess And The Sea

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Nancy Heslin   Forbes Monaco

Princesse Charlene and Conor McGregor

An unlikely pair, the biggest superstar of MMA and combat sports of this generation, Conor McGregor met Princess Charlene in Los Angeles in 2016 when she was launching the U.S. chapter of her foundation and he was about to take on Floyd Mayweather Jr. in a super- welterweight boxing match in Las Vegas. The two athletes, pictured above training in Corsica August 2020, share a passion for promoting the value of sports to children. Photo: Eric Mathon/ Palais Princier

Article first published in Forbes Monaco September/October 2020 issue.

How Charlene’s foundation is teaching children to keep their heads above water.

MERE MORTALS traveling from Corsica to Nice typically take a 5-hour ferry ride. Unwinding on a deck lounger, with the comforts of  WiFi and food service onboard, the only item on the agenda is breathing in the fresh sea air.

Princess Charlene is no mere mortal. The former Olympic swimmer will be pedaling on a water bike as part of a 180-kilometer Calvi to Monaco crossing to raise awareness for various programs run by her foundation.

The epic challenge from September 12 to 13 will see two teams of four international athletes faceoff for a 24-hour relay crossing from the port of Calvi on Corsica’s northwest coast to the spectacular finish line at the Monaco Yacht Club. “Since my youngest age and through my life as an athlete, I have always been aware of the dangers of water. In creating my foundation in 2012, my primary objective was to save lives by fighting against drowning in the world,” Princess Charlene, 42, tells Forbes Monaco.

“The water bike race between Calvi and Monaco on September 12-13, and beyond the sporting challenge it represents, will be a formidable opportunity to raise public awareness about water safety and to promote the Learn to Swim and Water Safety programs,” she remarks.

Princess Charlene, who finished fifth in the 4x100m medley at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and set several records for backstroke in 2002, will pit her Team Serenity against Team Notorious, led by her brother Gareth Wittstock, the foundation’s General Secretary. 

Over the past months, Wittstock has been traveling back and forth from Monaco to Calvi to train on the water bike alongside HSH. “My sister is super motivated and her strength and cardio are incredible,” the 38-year-old says. “I have trained in all the elements including windy days, early morning and also during the night. I am feeling strong and fit and ready for the race.”

Beyond sibling rivalry, there will be plenty of competition from a medley of athletic talent. Racing with the Princess will be Matthew Bennet (Guinness World Record for fastest time rowing the Atlantic), David Tanner (Australian professional road cyclist) and Brandon Green, son of Monaco resident and billionaire Sir Philip.

Wittstock is a former rugby player and his Team Notorious is the nickname of teammate Conor McGregor, former featherweight and lightweight Ultimate Fighting Champion (he often used Notorious B.I.G. songs to enter the cage). Monaco Olympic gymnast Kevin Crovetto and 6-foot-5, 230-pound French handball champion Jerome Fernandez make up the foursome.

McGregor, 32, has been documenting his water bike training with the Princess in Corsica on his Instagram account: “A great day racing the water bikes with Princess Charlene of Monaco. A phenomenal athlete and Olympian, we are teaming up for a 180km voyage in September to raise awareness in water safety. I cannot wait!”

Race director Stéphanie Geyer Barneix, world champion in lifesaving and women’s world record holder for longest paddle board crossing (4,830 km), will have her hands full as a Schiller water bike only reaches an average speed of 12.8 km/h (although pros can hit 16 km/h) but that is in calm water. The teams will be rotating 1.5 hour shifts out in the open water, with strong currents and racing across the night.

Dubbed “The Crossing,” this is a scaled down version of the foundation’s previous water bike editions that, in 2018, with 110 participants including 44 athletes forming 22 teams who competed in a 21-km loop around a megayacht in the port of Monaco. The first edition in 2017- at which her husband, 5-time Olympian Prince Albert, was one of the starting athletes— covered an unfavorably choppy 21 kilometers from Nice to Monaco.

Those past two editions, pre-Covid and the banning of large groups, benefited from the Riviera Water Bike Challenge Gala at the Monaco Yacht Club. The fundraiser in 2018, which had a silent auction, raised close to a €1 million. This year donations can be made online through the foundation’s website.

At the time of publication, the race is six days away. “The water bike is very stable but if it’s extremely turbulent stormy weather we would need to postpone to the next day for safety,” says Wittstock. “We have been watching the daily weather forecast leading up to the event, but for now it looks clear.”

SINCE ITS LAUNCH IN 2012, the Fondation de Princesse Charlène Monaco has reached 730,000 people in 34 countries, teaching them to swim, to learn essential water safety skills and “to appreciate the values of sport that are so dear to me.”

With the coronavirus pandemic, two of their worldwide programs aimed at children who are at risk of drowning —“Learn to Swim” and “Water Safety”—had to be put on hold, along with the “Sport & Education” initiative which offers sports activities to contribute to children’s wellbeing and development. To compensate, in August they started a digital campaign called #drowningprevention.

The Princess has taken slack over the years for not choosing a more “worthwhile” or “glamorous” cause but look at the facts: every minute of every day, more than two people die from drowning worldwide and, stipulates the International Life Saving Federation, 50% of these are children.

It is unquestionably Charlene’s unique roots that make her foundation’s mission so personal. Born in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, her family emigrated to South Africa when she was 12. With no access to public pools and water safety, African children have drowned on the way to school because a flash flood hits and they don’t know how to swim or they have been swept away from their mothers who are washing their clothes along the riverbank as the water rises suddenly.

The Princess herself saw her 5-year-old cousin drown, and, in 2012, while heading out to surf with her brother in Agadir, Morocco, witnessed three young children drown on the beach. “It was at that moment that I decided to do something to combat drowning, and educate people on the risks of swimming in dangerous zones,” she said at the time.

This past summer, in the Provence- Alpes-Côte d’Azur region, from June 1 to August 4, 160 emergency visits due to drowning were reported- the highest number of the country’s total 596 cases. According to a report by Santé Public France published in August, drowning remains the leading cause of accidental death for children in France—47% of drownings in June and July 2020 concerned kids under-6—and among young people under 25.

WHO confirms that drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide and in the U.S. it is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death in children aged 1-14 year. “Drowning death rates are highest in the WHO African Region, and are 15-20 times higher than those seen in the United Kingdom or Germany respectively.”

For the Princess Charlene Foundation, educating kids on how to keep their heads above water applies to life out of the pool also. “Teaching children essential life-saving skills and the values of discipline, team-work and respect for oneself and others will enable them to lead safe and fulfilled lives,” Princess Charlene vows.

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Nancy Heslin   Forbes Monaco

Nancy Heslin is an established journalist and lifestyle writer. She has been the Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Monaco magazine (bimonthly in English) , since the magazine's 2nd issue . Launched in November 2018, Forbes Monaco is part of the Forbes family, with its 7 million readers and 71 million monthly website visitors worldwide.