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Graphic by Nick Orabovic/Illustration by Tim Bobko

Should you teach adults to swim, or is it more important to teach children? To answer that question, consider this: Nearly half of American adults can’t swim in deep-water pools. Two-thirds can’t swim in open water. Adults make up 70 percent of all drownings in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

If we’re serious about ending drowning in the United States, let’s get every town to give effective swim lessons for adults. That means changing the way we’ve traditionally thought about such lessons, and addressing the main cause of their failure: fear.

The thinking has always been that if we teach all children to swim, then eventually all adults will be able to swim. The problem is, all children don’t learn.

Some learn, but many others don’t have the opportunity to take lessons. Some are denied lessons because their parents are worried about the potential for drowning in a water setting. Other parents want to protect their children from experiences they had in swim lessons themselves. Some youngsters take lessons and never learn, either because they don’t finish or because sessions don’t meet their needs. Some kids learn to swim and then have a frightening experience years later, which makes them unsafe in water afterward.

The result is that a majority of adults are unsafe in deep water. A Gallup Poll determined that 64 percent of American adults are afraid in deep, open water; 46 percent in deep pools. If they’re afraid, they can’t swim yet and they aren’t ready to learn mechanics. They have to learn something else first.

Adults in swim lessons often fail to learn to swim (to be free and comfortable in deep water) because they’re afraid of sinking, drowning, losing control, looking silly and/or running out of air.

Teaching them freestyle or any stroke does not fix any of these problems: They have no attention for those skills when they’re worried about staying alive.

That’s why it’s so important to teach them how to be comfortable in the water first — to address their fear of the water.

Many adults who drown took swim lessons. They failed to learn. We need to make it impossible for beginners to fail to learn. This is simple if we use the Five Circles teaching method. It is applicable to any learning.

The way to get more children into swim lessons is for parents to know how to swim. These parents know the importance and necessity of teaching swimming to their children. If all adults could swim, the drowning statistics for adults and children would fall dramatically.

To end all drowning, adults and children need to be able to rely on themselves to stay in control in deep water until help arrives. If they can remain in control, then by extension, they will be able to propel themselves, which is useful if safety is a short distance away.