For most National Aquatics Federations, it is not just about swimming and diving in pursuit of medals. Rather, there is a greater emphasis towards developing water sports across multiple levels in their homelands.

The Member Federations – large and small, and representing five continents – stress that annual funding provided through the World Aquatics Support Programme is their lifeblood, supporting various sporting missions, helping to develop and nurture individuals, empowering communities, and enriching lives. Fast times in the pool are coveted also.

“It is very important for us and gives us the necessary tools to focus on the development of athletes in all sports,” says Camilo Becerra, the Executive Director of the Colombian Swimming Federation (FECNA). “We have programmes in water polo, swimming, diving, artistic swimming, and open water swimming too.”

Image Source: A Cook Islands swimming coach looks on during an official training session at the World Aquatics Championships - Fukuoka 2023 (Mike Lewis/World Aquatics)

Romani Katoa, the president of the Cook Islands Aquatics Federation (CIAF), is equally as grateful as Becerra, albeit possessing different goals and strategies, especially considering operations in a vastly different natural environment.

“Without the funding that we receive, there is no way we could reach out to our community and accomplish what we do with our swimming programmes, it’s as simple as that,” Katoa says.

Image Source: Tepaia Payne of Cook Islands competes in the Men's 100m Freestyle heats at the 14th World Aquatics Championships (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

“Swimming is in our DNA as Polynesians, as navigators and seafarers. Unfortunately, over time, it just never became a mainstream sport and that’s how our people view it. We’re trying to bring it back to what our ancestors used to be.

“We’ve found that through the Swimming in Schools Programme that we’ve introduced, any one of these kids can go on to become an Olympic or world champion, given the right environment, resources and opportunities.”

Image Source: Bede Aitu of Cook Islands leads his heat in the Men's 100m Backstroke at the World Aquatics Championships - Budapest 2022 (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Katoa points out that there are no 50m swimming pools across the 15 islands comprising the South Pacific nation. “We teach all of our swimming in the lagoon,” the CIAF President informs.

Lessons include ocean awareness and safety, navigating currents, and understanding reefs and the formations of waves.

“We want swimming to be accessible to all and free for all,” Katoa says. “We’re teaching a life skill.”

Focus on Youth Development and Grassroots

Image Source: Jorge Mario Murillo Valdez of Columbia competes at the 15th World Aquatics Championships (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

For many National Federations, the World Aquatics funding is ideal for developing and administering youth and grassroots programmes.

“Our main objective with this project is development, so we focus on youth,” says Becerra, a three-time Olympic swimmer. “It allows us to invest in special programmes focused on development, the massification in each sport, and academic programmes as well.”

Image Source: Colombia pre-match at the 2022 World Aquatics Championships in Szeged, Hungary (Luiza Moraes/World Aquatics)

Becerra highlights the federation’s youth-centred PLAN COLNAT programme. “We organise special workshops around the country. Our development coaches travel to different regions to share their experience, identify talent and engage with our community. We could finally hire a water polo coach specialising in the youth categories because of the World Aquatics support.”

Becerra says that FECNA’s mission is about finding the right balance for allocation of the funding.

“It gives us the focus to not only keep developing our high-level athletes but also the opportunity to focus on the developing categories,” he says.

Katoa echoes similar ideals and ambitions for CIAF.

“The more people we can get swimming, and understand swimming at the grassroots level, then the larger pool of athletes we have to choose from for our elite programmes,” Katoa explains. “From there, we can send them onward with scholarships to Australia to further their elite performances there.”

Funding Determined through the World Aquatics Governance Survey

Image Source: World and Olympic champion Adam Peaty runs a local swimming clinic with aspiring athletes during the World Aquatics Swimming World Cup 2023 tour (Istvan Derencsenyi/World Aquatics)

World Aquatics Senior Manager for Development, Athletes, Masters and Non-Sports Events Morgane Gaultier explains the vision and global strategy behind the support programme and finances made available to the National Federations.

“The idea is to elevate the development of aquatics at the National level through financial support. The aim is to encourage the National Federations to initiate projects for competition management, infrastructure, administration, governance, and athletes.

The programme celebrates the rich diversity of aquatic sports, nurturing an inclusive environment where each sport can thrive and excel” Gaultier says.

Image Source: World Aquatics hosts a coaches clinic in Berlin, Germany in 2023 (JoKleindl/World Aquatics)

Based upon participation to the previous World Aquatics Championships and evaluation of key information provided in a good governance survey, National Federations are eligible to receive 25,000 USD annually, and a 5,000 USD bonus if their overall score improves from the previous year. Gaultier informs that a maximum of 25 percent of World Aquatics Support Programme funding can be spent on governance projects, while the remaining 75 percent or more must be dedicated to athletes-centred activities.

Image Source: World Aquatics hosts a mental health forum at the World Aquatics Championships - Doha 2024 (Hiroyuki Nakamura/World Aquatics)

“The athletes are the heart of our sports,” Gaultier stresses. “When we say it's for the athletes, it translates into direct support for them to participate in competitions, and/or indirect support to develop coaching programs, or invest in upgrading swimming pool facilities for example."

“This is an annual programme with a new application every year. Nevertheless, we are also urging National Federations to adopt a longer-term perspective, rather than focusing solely on a year-by-year approach,” she said. “The programme can be segmented in numerous ways, with annual projects encompassing athlete support for competitions and long-term initiatives focused on governance or educational programs, among others. We are collaborating closely with the National Federation to ensure that these aspects are carefully considered."

Image Source: Victor Ortega Serna of Colombia competes in the Men's 27m High Diving at the World Aquatics Championships - Doha 2024 (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

“We’ve tried to keep the same projects for a minimum of two years, such as the PLAN COLNAT programme,” Becerra informs about FECNA’s targeted initiative. “It was a programme implemented just before the pandemic with internal resources, but then with the World Aquatics Support Programme, we completed our budget to continue developing the programme.”

Gaultier notes that 184 of 210 National Federations were eligible for funding in 2024. In 2025, nearly all National Federations will qualify based on their participation at the recent World Aquatics Championships - Doha 2024. As the largest of the World Aquatics Development Programmes, the Support Programme’s annual budget is approximately four million USD. World Aquatics launched the project in 2018.

“When the smaller federations say we are going to use half of the funds to go to a continental or World Aquatics event, we are fine with that because this is how the athletes gain experience,” Gaultier says. “Without those funds, many of them will not make it, so it has really helped our sport to grow internationally and become more universal.”

Bright Futures on the Aquatics Horizon

Image Source: Daniel Restrepo Garcia of Colombia poses with his gold medal from the Men's 3m Springboard Final at the Buenos Aires Youth Olympics Games (Marcelo Endelli/Getty Images)

The Colombian Swimming Federation Executive Director Becerra is pleased that current athletes have more funding opportunities, notably the World Aquatics Support Programme, as opposed to those competing back in his era.

“Most of the swimmers at that time didn’t have this chance, so the programme really allows us to give athletes a better opportunity to train, prepare and develop,” Becerra says. “For us, this is great.”

Image Source: Wesley Roberts (top) of Cook Islands competes in a Men's 1500m Freestyle heat at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games (Adam Pretty/Getty Images)

Katoa believes that his tropical island nation also has a promising future in developing water polo. As far as cultivating future internationally competitive swimmers from the Cook Islands, he has big dreams for a small country.

“It would be really great to see some of our island kids from this region, the most challenging and isolated communities in the world even if we live in the Pacific Ocean, to be able to one day compete in an Olympic final.”