How Maria Conceicao plans to swim the English Channel to raise awareness for slum kids
We speak to the Dubai philanthropist and founder of the Maria Christina Foundation about slums, scholarships and swimming
Maria Conceicao, 42, has a vocal hatred for cold water – and yet she is swimming across the English Channel this September.
The Portuguese philanthropist and motivational speaker, who lives in Dubai, has made it her mission to raise awareness and funds for the slums of Bangladesh, focusing on the poverty-stricken young people who live there. She hopes to do so by swimming the 33-kilometre-wide stretch of water that separates Calais in France from Dover in the UK. Swimming the Channel is an athletic feat classified as “demanding” by the Channel Swimming Association.
“I hope it gets the attention of some people who are willing and able to support these students,” says Conceicao, who founded the Maria Cristina Foundation in 2005.
“This year, we have 20 more students ready to start university or start their careers in September, so I am hoping the English Channel [swim] will bring the awareness needed to help them get to the next level.”
'Cold water is my kryptonite'
Interestingly, Conceicao describes herself as a “non-athlete”. Astoundingly, she only learnt to swim four years ago and has tried, but failed, to swim the Channel before. “I know taking on this challenge makes me sound like an extreme sports lady, but really I am not. I’m just able to focus and really train for each individual goal,” she explains. “Swimming and especially cold water are my kryptonite; I only learnt to swim in 2015 because until then I really didn’t like the water. I tried to swim the Channel in 2016, but the pilot aborted the swim after seven hours because I wasn’t making enough progress.”
The journey can take between seven and 27 hours, and depends entirely on individual athletes and the swim speed they can sustain in open waters. Conceicao anticipates being in for up to 18 hours. To train, she has been swimming between 20km and 25km per week for several months.
“I mostly practise in the pool, but also [did] some cold-water training in Portugal and Scotland,” she says. “The cold is one of the biggest parts of the challenge; I hate the cold, but I have to be able withstand such water for at least 18 hours with no wetsuit.”
She also does two weekly strength and conditioning sessions with Joao Arteche at Bespoke Ride, plus two spinning sessions, and pays many visits to Up and Running Sports Centre for sports massages and physiotherapy. Despite her modest claims that she is not a real athlete, she certainly has an impressive fitness curriculum vitae.
She was the first Portuguese woman to reach the summit of Everest, as well as making the last degree expedition to the North and South poles. She holds eight Guinness World Records for various marathons and Ironman challenges across the world, and was awarded a double Guinness World Record for her conquest of 2014’s 777 World Marathon Challenge, comprising seven full-distance 50km ultramarathon runs on each of the seven continents in seven weeks.
From Emirates crew to Bangladesh activist
Before embarking on a life of physical feats and fundraising, Conceicao worked as crew for Emirates and as a VIP flight attendant for Dubai Air Wing, but everything changed for her in the mid-2000s. “In 2005, I was in Dhaka and I visited the slums to see how people lived. Although there was poverty everywhere, I could see potential that was wasted because people had no opportunity to do anything with their lives,” she says. “They were living in makeshift homes that were surrounded by so much garbage and filth. The scarcity of resources and livelihood in slums were drastic, so I started to help, just in a small way to start.
“[I began by] taking all of my holidays in Bangladesh. I promised 101 families with 600 students between them that I would do everything I could to take their children out of poverty, slavery and destitution. Many people in Dubai helped me [with] building up the community and several facilities, including a school.”
The students who joined her then are now studying at universities across the world, in countries including Australia, Portugal and the US. “We have also had very successful adult education programmes, and several of these adults are now working in good jobs in Dubai with Emirates and at various hotels,” she adds.
Foundation named after adoptive mum
However, the drive to do good and better the lives of those around her comes from a deeper place than observations from a trip to Bangladesh. Her quest, her spokesperson explains, is inspired by her adoptive mother, Maria Cristina, “an African immigrant who worked as a cleaner and had six children of her own”. Cristina took Conceicao in when she was two years old as her seventh child. Her motto was: “If you can feed six, then you can feed seven.” Cristina’s philosophy is mirrored in Conceicao’s work.
The ability to change the lives of children – turning caterpillars into butterflies – by providing them an education is what drives me to challenge myself and always push my own personal boundaries.
At a Ted Talk she gave in 2011, Conceicao said of the young people she works with: “The ability to change the lives of children – turning caterpillars into butterflies – by providing them an education is what drives me to challenge myself and always push my own personal boundaries.”
She has found a huge amount of support in the UAE through Dubai education investment company Athena Education, which has offered scholarships for children between seven and 13 years, and storage company InfoFort Dubai, which provided summer internships to a number of university students. She hopes that by taking on the Channel swim, other companies will hear about her work and offer similar funding.
Conceicao has also received backing from UAE royals, including Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance. “In 2010, I had plans to bring some students to the UAE for a summer camp. Sheikh Nahyan offered his help by providing the visas, as well as providing visit visas when we brought adults from Bangladesh for job interviews in the UAE,” she says.
“By 2013, I didn’t have an income or a residence visa myself, so Sheikh Nahyan also helped me so that I could continue with my projects and sports record attempts,” she adds. “He has helped to change many lives.” As, indeed, has she.
More information about the Foundation’s work is available here.
Updated: August 20, 2019 11:38 AM