2:02 PM PST, December 6, 2012
I didn't learn to swim until my early teens. I had a deep fear about the deep end of the swimming pool. I didn't understand how people could stay afloat when they dove into water over their heads. To this aspiring journalist, the concept of "treading water" was breaking news.
My fear of the water was inherited from my parents. Both, ironically, are natives of Jamaica — beach country, a place where tourists and others come to swim, among other activities. The perception is that all island natives must surely know how to swim. But neither of my parents did. Their fear of the water was passed on by their parents. My parents, however, insisted that all three of their sons learn to swim.
I was the last one in, so to speak. In turn, I've made sure that both my kids were exposed to the water at an early age. My 12-year-old daughter is close to being an advanced swimmer. My 9-year-old is a beginner, but loves the water.
Every time I hear of some teen drowning in a pool — during a swim class, of all things — I shudder. There but for the grace of God …
In Connecticut, there have been four recent drowning deaths of children in pools, including two this year at public schools — Manchester and East Hartford. A Courant review of the drownings found inconsistencies in safety policies and enforcement.
Providing safeguards for kids taking swimming lessons should be the easy part. Outside of negligence, there is simply no reason for someone to drown while taking lessons from a certified instructor. These accidents rightfully spur legal actions, which can result in hefty settlements. This in turn causes school districts and other agencies to become skittish when it comes to providing swimming pools or lessons for young people. That's a big mistake, particularly in urban centers, where too many kids never learn to swim.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that African American kids between the ages of 5 and 14 are three times more likely to drown than others. About 70 percent of black children, according to a University of Memphis study, don't know how to swim.
It's not about access to pools, or even the cost of swimming lessons, the study found. The biggest detriment to a young black kid learning to swim —- like me back in the day — is fear.
Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones was recently featured in an NBC Rock Center profile.
At 5, Jones nearly drowned in a New Jersey swimming pool. A year later, his parents made him take lessons. Two decades after mouth-to-mouth resuscitation revived him, Jones was part of a world-record setting Olympic relay team. But Jones never forgot that he was almost given last rites before he even turned 6.
He founded the Make a Splash program in 2007; the program reports it has provided low-cost swimming lessons to 1 million urban children. The need for Make a Splash was highlighted three years later when six teenagers — yes, six — drowned in a river in Shreveport, La., after trying to help a peer who was struggling in the water.
Most of the adults at the river that day could not assist because they could not swim either.
I like the idea of making learning how to swim a requirement or community mandate of some sort. It saves lives. It helps folks overcome fear — and swimming is great exercise. Debates about uniform or proper safety requirements for swimming lessons should not dissuade us from making sure children have access to this vital, lifesaving instruction.
On Sept. 11, 1992, Dwight Anthony Weller, 16, died accidentally in the Weaver High School pool while participating in a swim class. It was, sadly, his first day of school after moving to Hartford from Jamaica.
The Weaver pool has been dormant the last several years. But several months ago significant upgrades were made and the pool was put back in use.
Hopefully, once new state safety guidelines are put in place, the Weaver pool can serve as a centerpiece for an urban swimming program.
Stan Simpson is host of "The Stan Simpson Show'' (www.ctnow.com/stan and Saturdays, 6:30 a.m., on FOX CT).
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