Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Hang around the shores of Dover or Sandycove Island in Cork, Ireland and swimmers are surrounded by like-minded athletes, coaches, trainers, pilots and volunteers.

Train with the Dolphin Club and South End Rowing Club members in Aquatic Park in San Francisco or with hundreds of regular ocean swimmers in Manly, Australia with the Bold and Beautiful Swim Squad and the ecosystem of open water swimming is a tremendous boost.

Head to Cape Town, South Africa or Waikiki on Oahu and there are always swimmers to swim with and talk about your future open water swimming goals.

The camaraderie and support system of the global open water swimming community from Iberia to Italy, from Tampa Bay to Tokyo, from Brisbane to Burghausen provides a great platform to learn about and achieve things all around the world.

There are also areas around the world where solitary swimmers take it upon themselves to grow the sport in different ways.

Mihir Sen of India who was crossing channels in the 1950’s and 1960’s was one of these pioneers. Rohan More is his contemporary equivalent.

There are others like Seti Afoa of Samoa in the warm water community and Matías Ola of Argentina in the cold water community.

But there is arguably no one who has literally moved an entire country to learn about and support open water swimming like Nejib Belhedi of Tunisia.

Lieutenant Colonel Nejib Ben Messaoud Belhedi was born along the Mediterranean coastal city of Sfax in 1952 and has surrounded himself by water nearly his entire life.

He completed his first major channel swim between England and France in 1993 and has rarely stopped since. He has long supported the sport through the Dialog Across the Seas across Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Mauritania and the Western Sahara, and the 1400 km Stage Swim Across Tunisia.

He started the concept of Ouma (“swim in the sea“) where different events across Tunisia were aimed at developing and inspiring the next generation of swimmers from Ouma For Kids Across Tunisia and the Swim of Peace Ouma – Djerba to the Ouma of Dunes and the Ouma of Monastir.

He built upon the Ouma events to ice swims in Tunisia and 7-day stage swims like the Tethys Challenge and other solo channel swims in the Mediterranean Sea.

Most recently, he has started a series of well-publicized boat pulling events called the World Iron Swims. He started pulling two young children, then graduated to pulling a boat with a camel to larger and larger boats and now ships weighing over 1000 tons.

He has convinced and inspired many government officials, both locally and nationally, to participate in his events that always have a component to inspire the young people of Tunisia to swim. Next week, he will host the 2017 Global Open Water Swimming Conference where high government officials, Shelley Taylor-Smith, Ger Kennedy, Rory Fitzgerald, Steven Munatones, Tatiana Ostanina and Kate Steels-Fryatt will speak.

Nejib has proven himself as a tough, disciplined swimmer in both warm water and very cold water. He has successfully crossed turbulent channels and helped out many of his fellow Tunisians through his events in his native country,” said Munatones. “From his promotion of Ouma to his World Iron Swims, he has brought open water swimming to the general public through broadly televised events. He has convinced high government officials and authorities to support the sport and make swimming accessible to many.

He received the World Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year Award in 2011 and was voted as the 2016 World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year for his many exploits and mindset. Nejib has long been an honorable ambassador of channel swimming, marathon swimming, stage swimming, ice swimming as an athlete, coach and administrator, not only in Tunisia and North Africa, but also across the Middle East and across many international borders. His combination of athleticism, adventure, vision and management skills are worthy of all the accolades he receives.

If there was ever a champion in the sport, Nejib Belhedi is definitely one.

Hosting the 2017 Global Open Water Swimming Conference at the Bizerte Resort Hotel in Tunisia is a very big opportunity to make concrete short- and long-term developments for open water swimming in this part of the world,” remarked Belhedi. “My vision and plan is for Ouma [“to swim in the sea” in Arabic] to reach children in different regions throughout Tunisia without exception, Depending on their different swimming levels, we want to teach them how to swim in the sea or to perfect their talents or to improve their performances.”

For more information on the 2017 Global Open Water Swimming Conference held on September 9th-13th at the Bizerta Hotel Resort in Tunis, Tunisia, visit here.

The event is co-hosted by Minister Majdouline Cherni (Ministry of Youth and Sports), 2016 World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year Nejib Belhedi, Imed Jabri (Secretary of State for Youth and Sports), Chokri Ben Hassen (Minister Advisor), and Afif Kchouk (President Director General of Bizerta Hotel Resort).

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