When a 2008 University of Memphis study concluded that more than half of all black and Hispanic children are “at-risk” swimmers, the findings confirmed what many already knew (as noted in an earlier Aquatics International special report), and became something of a call to action.
Since then, the industry has stepped up efforts to address the issue in a big way, and it appears the message is starting to take hold. Still, tragedies are happening, and there’s a long way to go.
Perhaps the largest single effort addressing the disparity is USA Swimming’s Make a Splash program.
Since 2008, the program has mushroomed from 29 local partners to 327 in 44 states, and funding for grants has increased nearly $40,000 in the past year, according to Kim O’Shea, program manager.
“I think we’re definitely gaining ground,” O’Shea said.
More importantly, support is coming from school children, large corporations and everyone in between, O’Shea noted. Similarly, last year, The Cincinnati Inquirer reported that inmates at the London Correctional Institution, near Columbus, Ohio, donated $1,000 to help the city of Cincinnati keep its pools open. The inmates recognized the importance of safe, healthy daytime activities for inner-city kids and raised the money selling pies and vegetables from the prison’s farm.
O’Shea also has seen an increase in media coverage. Last year, Newsweek, MSNBC, NPR and the BBC all published articles looking at the issue of minority drowning.
All of these positive steps are helping break the pattern of fear — parents who can’t swim being afraid to allow their children to swim. It’s a factor that has perpetuated the high rates of drowning among African-Americans and Hispanics.
“You have to change people’s perceptions and make them understand that it is a life skill,” said Manny Banks, USA Swimming’s diversity membership specialist.
But he acknowledges that kind of change takes time. Perhaps nowhere has that been made more obvious than in Shreveport, La., Last year, six teens drowned while attending a get-together with family along the Red River. The teens — all nonswimmers — drowned trying to save one another while helpless family members (also nonswimmers) looked on in horror.
Since then, the community has come together to form the Stewart-Warner Project Swim. Named in honor of the victims, the program is raising funds to provide free swim lessons.
“In the aftermath of that tragedy, it became apparent that there was a disconnect, not so much in terms of the access to pools, but the culture seems to be one of distrust of the water. Parents and grandparents pass along wariness to children,” said Paula Hickman, executive director of The Community Foundation in Shreveport, overseeing Project Swim.
Banks, who is working with the community of Shreveport, is optimistic. People are starting to understand that learning how to swim is important,” he said. “Eventually, we will be able to get past that point where it takes a tragedy, but that takes time.”