In my four-plus years as editor, I’ve seen numerous stories about children who drown. But I never really understood the fear, confusion and anxiety parents go through when their child goes missing at an aquatics facility until this past Labor Day, when my professional and personal worlds collided.

It all started when my older brother came to me on the last day of a family reunion at Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Warrens, Wis. “Have you seen Matt?” he asked me, obviously concerned. Moments earlier, Matt, my 9-year-old nephew, had waved excitedly to us from the wave pool as we waited in line for another turn on the tube slide. Now he was missing.

Immediately, my mind went to all the drownings we cover in Aquatics International. I pictured him submerged underwater, unseen. Or frantically crying for help, unheard. I cursed myself for being so careless. How many times had I read the warnings of experts: Don’t leave children unsupervised. More than anyone, I should have known better, but in my own excitement, I had let my guard down.

“I’ll help you look. I’m sure he’s fine,” I said, even as my mind raced. I was heartened that the waterpark had a staff of lifeguards, who were obviously scanning and staying vigilant. I thought about going to a guard for help, but I couldn’t think what I would say. “Have you seen a 9-year-old boy in blue shorts?” I could be describing 60 percent of the patrons.

As I went from the wave pool to the activity pool to the lazy river of the sprawling, 48,000-square-foot resort, I found it difficult to focus. All the kids started to look alike. The distances between pools and activity areas seemed insurmountable.

During those moments, I did what any parent or guardian would do. I looked in silence — and I prayed. After a few minutes, my brother’s wife joined the search, along with my niece. No one could find him. I was just about to go to a lifeguard when my brother showed up with my missing nephew in tow, smiling sheepishly. It turned out, he had met a 5-year-old boy who asked him if he wanted to go on the tube slide together.

We all breathed huge sighs of relief.

It could have turned out much differently. And at unguarded pools across the nation, often it does — as detailed in our special report on this thorny issue. Yes, there are those who debate the merits and liabilities of guarded pools. But for me, it all comes down to one thing: A vigilant guard is the best defense against drowning.

It’s time for the entire industry to get on board with this line of thinking. It may be easy for aquatics professionals to distinguish between an apartment or small hotel pool, which comprise most of the unguarded pools. But for the public, it is not. To them, it’s all water. And when something tragic happens in the water, it taints the whole industry.

That’s why leaders should do whatever they can to make unguarded pools a thing of the past, a pariah that is not welcome in the world of aquatics. As I discovered, when it comes to ensuring aquatic safety, everyone needs a little help now and then. During those times, what a relief it is to know that someone is watching your back.

Gary Thill

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Credit: Gary Thill