Simon Holliday, Senior Learning & Development Manager for Asia based in Hong Kong, is a record-breaking long-distance swimmer. He co-founded Splash Foundation, to teach adults and kids from low-income communities , particularly those from minority and disadvantaged communities, to swim. With the firm's support, Splash has taught over 5,000 people how to swim, and are aiming to teach 3,000 this year alone.
How did you get into swimming?
I started swimming at four years’ old, but a bad teacher put me off. It was only in my twenties that I started doing triathlons and realised that, of the three disciplines, I liked swimming the most. That got me into open water swimming, eventually crossing the English Channel. I admit it took me some time to get used to cold water , but once I did, there was no going back.
What do you like about swimming?
There is the physical exercise, but more than that there is a spiritual, existential element to long-distance swimming. It is very good for your mental well-being. Plus it is very collegiate. The swimming world is full of quirky and interesting people. It is a very supportive community, and not as competitive as you might imagine – even though, of course, people do push themselves. The primary goal is to get to the other side; how fast you get there is secondary. It is easy to make connections because most people have come to open water swimming later on in life, and are on some kind of journey of discovery: you get to know people by swimming alongside them, even though you might not have spoken to them!
Tell me why and how you started the Splash Foundation
Splash is Hong Kong’s only charitable organisation providing swimming lessons to thousands of adults and young people from low income and marginalised communities. I co-founded Splash in 2015 with my friend, Libby Alexander, because we realised that only a small percentage of people know how to swim, and we felt they were missing out. In Hong Kong, just under half of all children leaving secondary school can’t swim, and yet Hong Kong is literally swimming with public pools. The figures are even worse for those from poorer backgrounds. So I saw an opening to provide opportunities.
Most of our programmes are 12 weeks. In that time, we can teach the vast majority of our participants to swim the length of a 25-metre swimming pool unassisted. That's a pretty incredible personal achievement, given that some of them had never been in a body of water three months before. The feeling they have when they reach the other side is surpassed only by the feeling we have observing as their coaches. Incredibly proud parents!
We have been fortunate that many people have raised money for Splash by undertaking swim challenges, both in the pool and the open water. These funds have made a huge difference to the number of people we’ve been able to teach in uncertain times for charities like us and the beneficiaries we support.
Have you received support from Herbert Smith Freehills?
We have had consistent support from the firm from very early on. This has been pro bono support, most recently from the Pro Legis team in Singapore who are helping us set up an entity in Singapore so we can continue to run programmes for migrant domestic workers over there. The firm has also supported the Splash Dash Relay – our main swim gala fundraiser which is making a comeback after a three-year hiatus. Most special is the people in the firm who have given their time and money. A number of people have become monthly donors. Others have helped us set up governance structures, employment documentation, or collateral for translation. A debt of thanks goes to Nicky Cardno who chairs our Pro Bono and Responsible Business Committee in Hong Kong. She has been amazing throughout. It's a big boost that your colleagues believe in you and the mission that everyone should have the opportunity to learn to swim.
Tell me how you found yourself in Hong Kong?
I have long been interested in China, having studied international relations at university and reading Wild Swans by Jung Chang, which had a big impact on me. Chinese history is fascinating. I had a chance in 2011 to go on secondment to Hong Kong with my previous law firm. I came back in 2013, and in 2019 married my wife. We now have a son, Finn, who is a keen swimmer!
What is your role in Herbert Smith Freehills?
I joined the firm in 2016 in Learning & Development covering the learning needs of our eight offices in Asia. I design and deliver development programmes, bespoke training courses and with my colleague, Jenny, oversee our Internal Coaching Faculty which helps partners and employees at all levels realise their potential. It took me a while to find out what I wanted to do and what I was good at (which often go hand-in-hand). That process of self-discovery and knowing what you want doesn't just happen for most people – you need a plan. I remember a former manager – who had trained as a coach – saying to me, “If you don’t have a plan, you're in someone else’s.” That really stuck with me, and I have always tried to maintain a clear direction, if not always a prescriptive plan.
What does learning mean to you?
I love learning new things. I think I've become more focused on how I learn – and less just for the sake of it – which has its pros and cons. In a law firm where everyone is very busy, it can be hard to see the wood from the trees sometimes. There are regular programmes and coaching where people have the opportunity to reflect on what they've achieved and where they want to go. But I think many don't get off the conveyor belt enough and if they sought guidance from people in the firm - as mentors, coaches, sponsors - and had more conversations, they have more insights, spot more spot opportunities and gain more clarity.
What comes next for Splash Foundation?
We're aiming to teach 3,000 adults and kids how to swim this year. With the firm's help, we are launching our first programmes in Singapore, so I guess we can just about claim to be an international NGO!
One of the most rewarding things is seeing some of our participants grow as leaders. A quarter of our 100+ active volunteer coaches are migrant domestic workers who have been through our programme and have learned to become teachers themselves. We have Splash Captains who provide administrative and pastoral care – they will be undertaking a mental health first aid programme to help support participants in and out of the water. Splash Storytellers have attended presentation skills and they are sharing their story with corporate audiences. It's seeing this change in people that is the reason we keep going.
For more information about Splash and to support, visit https://www.splashfoundation.org/en/