What to Know About Princess Charlene of Monaco, from Her Olympic Past to Her Current Stint in South Africa

Learn more about Princess Charlene of Monaco, including her accomplished athletic history, her introduction to the Monegasque royal family, and her current health issues which have kept her out of Monaco for months

Princess Charlene of Monaco
Princess Charlene. Photo: Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

Princess Charlene of Monaco has been the subject of many headlines lately, regarding the health issues that have had her sequestered in South Africa away from her husband and children for much of 2021. But what else is there to know about Princess Charlene?

Charlene of Monaco, royal wife of Prince Albert II, holds impressive titles to her name – and "Princess" is just one of them ("Her Serene Highness" is another, and former Olympic swimmer for her home country of South Africa is a third).

Yet another job the princess, 43, holds is mom to her 6-year-old twins with Prince Albert, Gabrielle and Jacques. A close friend told PEOPLE that Charlene is "incredibly involved and protective... in a very loving and providing kind of way. She sees herself as the protector of the heirs, as opposed to the princess of Monaco."

However, she has been living apart from her husband and children in South Africa since May, after an infection flare-up necessitated surgery that prevented Charlene from air travel; she called their months apart "trying."

Prince Albert II of Monaco and Princess Charlene of Monaco
PLS Pool/Getty Images

After several months of anticipating her return, a palace spokesperson confirmed to PEOPLE on October 8 that the princess had gone in for her final procedure before she would be able to return to Monaco.

Prince Albert II of Monaco, Prince Jacques of Monaco, Princess Gabriella of Monaco and Princess Charlene of Monaco
Prince Albert, Princess Charlene and twins Prince Jacques and Princess Gabriella. SC Pool - Corbis/Getty Images

The princess has expressed her appreciation for her husband's support during their months apart. For his part, Albert, 63, told PEOPLE, "I'm looking forward to Charlene being back. Looking forward to her being back because she's part of my life, part of our lives, part of life in Monaco. I'm also looking forward to her helping me with the children and with different things as she has in the past because it's a team effort. When one of the team members isn't there, it's a lot more difficult."

UPDATE (Nov. 8): Princess Charlene returned home from South Africa on Nov. 8 after sixth months. Sources tell PEOPLE that she arrived in France early Monday morning and landed in Nice. She reunited with her husband and kids before being helicoptered to Monaco.

UPDATE (Nov. 19): Princess Charlene has entered a medical treatment facility "outside of Monaco" because she's suffering profound "exhaustion, both emotional and physical," Prince Albert tells PEOPLE. She's been home for 11 days since her return from Africa, in which Albert says "went pretty well in the first few hours, and then it became pretty evident that she was unwell."

Princess Charlene of Monaco and Prince Albert II of Monaco
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Here's everything to know about Princess Charlene.

Where did Princess Charlene grow up?

Princess Charlene was born on January 25, 1978, in Bulawayo, Rhodesia (what we know as Zimbabwe today). She was raised by her father, sales manager Michael Wittstock, and her mother Lynette, a former competitive diver and swim coach.

The family, of German origin, relocated to South Africa in 1989 when Charlene was 12 years old. Gareth and Sean, her two younger brothers, are businessmen in Monaco and South Africa, respectively.

Michael Kenneth Wittstock, Lynette Wittstock
Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

To which Royal House does Princess Charlene belong?

Princess Charlene is a member of the 700-year-old House of Grimaldi, alongside her husband Sovereign Prince Albert II of Monaco, the current Head of the House. Prince Albert II is the son and successor of Prince Rainier III and the Princess consort Grace of Monaco (also known as, Hollywood star Grace Kelly).

Great coat of arms of the house of Grimaldi
House of Grimaldi

Originating in Genoa, the Grimaldi dynasty is a princely house founded by Francesco Grimaldi. Francesco, the leader of the Guelphs, became lord of Monaco in 1297.

Where did Princess Charlene meet her husband Prince Albert II?

The couple's love of swimming brought the two together. Charlene had quite a successful swimming career, which started at age 18 when she won the South African Championship in 1996. She later represented South Africa at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where her team finished fifth in the 4x100-meter medley relay.

Charlene Wittstock
Gallo Images/Getty Images

His Serene Highness Prince Albert of Monaco met Charlene at the "Mare Nostrum" swimming competition in Monte Carlo, Monaco, in 2000. A few years later, the couple made their relationship debut at the 2006 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Italy. They officially announced their engagement in 2010.

Although qualifying to swim for South Africa at the 2008 Beijing Games, the Olympian retired professionally a year earlier. Throughout her accomplished swimming career, Charlene also gave back and taught swimming lessons to the underprivileged.

Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene stand at the altar during their religious wedding ceremony
Alamy Stock Photo

When did Princess Charlene and Prince Albert II get married?

The couple married on July 1, 2011, which marked Monaco's first royal wedding in 55 years – the first to occur since the "Wedding of the Century," when Prince Rainier wed Grace Kelly in an extravagant ceremony in 1956.

The four-day nuptials (which comprised a civil ceremony, at which she wore a blue suit by Karl Lagerfeld, and the televised religious ceremony) were filled with fireworks and pageantry galore (the entire event was said to cost $70 million). An estimated 150,000 bystanders lined the street to get a glimpse of the glamorous bride and groom, while 800 guests were invited to the ceremony (where they could enjoy a five-tier wedding cake with 110 lbs. of strawberries!).

Princess Charlene of Monaco and Prince Albert Of Monaco
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

The event was also noteworthy for how emotional Charlene appeared during the ceremony.

Who are Princess Charlene's children?

On December 10, 2014, the royal couple welcomed 6-year-old twins, Princess Gabriella and Hereditary Prince Jacques, who is first in the line of succession to the throne.

Prince Albert not only has duties as Head of the House, but he has dad duties as well! He opened up to PEOPLE Royals magazine about the siblings and their differences.

Prince Albert II of Monaco and Princess Charlene of Monaco with their children Prince Jacques of Monaco and Princess Gabriella of Monaco
Prince Albert, Princess Charlene and their twins Princess Gabriella and Prince Jacques on Monaco National Day in 2018. Arnold Jerocki/Getty Images

"In very broad terms, Jacques is a little more shy and a little quieter, but he can also come up with some very funny things," said Prince Albert. "He's a great observer and loves to size up the situation. Then he'll go for it."

Meanwhile, Princess Gabriella is "a little more outgoing, and she definitely has the gift of gab."

"She's just a character who loves to dance and to sing," continued Albert. "She has no qualms about being in front of people."

What kind of charity work does Princess Charlene do?

In December of 2012, Charlene launched the Princess Charlene of Monaco Foundation to champion her personal humanitarian endeavors. One of the former Olympic swimmer's main objectives is to put an end to drowning.

"Its missions are to raise public awareness about the dangers of water, teach children preventive measures, and teach them to swim," according to the foundation's website.

Princess Charlene of Monaco's recent trip to South Africa included essential rhino conservation
PrincessCharleneFoundationSA Instagram

Also focusing her efforts in various wildlife conservation operations, she launched Chasing Zero, an initiative "about speaking out against the atrocity of wildlife poaching and doing something about it before it's too late."

She's also accompanied Prince Albert on his various travels to support charity events, and serves on the board of the Monaco Red Cross. Other organizations that she's been heavily involved in include the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Special Olympics, the Giving Organisation Trust, AS Rugby Monaco, Monaco Liver Disorder, and MONAA (Monaco Against Autism).

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Princess Charlene of Monaco and Prince Albert II of Monaco
SC Pool - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

When will Charlene return to Monaco?

In the past, Charlene had expressed homesickness for South Africa; and wished she could bring her children there to visit more often.

"I have the privilege of having this life, but I miss my family and my friends in South Africa and I'm often sad because I cannot always be there for them," she told South African magazine Huisgenoot. (In the same interview, she revealed why she might look sad in photographs. "Sometimes it's hard to smile," she said. "They don't know what's going on in the background.")

Her May visit to her home country was unexpectedly extended for months, she said, after doctors told her that an ongoing sinus issue made it dangerous for her to experience pressure in air travel. She missed her 10th anniversary, though Albert and her children did come for visits.

In September, Albert told PEOPLE exclusively that Charlene was "ready to come home," and on October 8, the Monaco palace announced that Charlene had gone in for "her final procedure" ahead of being cleared for her return to Monaco. No official date has been set.

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