A new study, conducted by University of Memphis and commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation, found a 5- to 10% increase in overall swimming ability in U.S. children when compared with a previous study conducted in 2010.

The 2017 study, called Factors Impacting Swimming Participation and Competence, which will appear in full on USA Swimming Foundation’s website in late summer, and is a follow-up to two previous studies. Constraints Impacting Minority Swimming Participation, Phase I and II were conducted by the University of Memphis in 2008 and 2010. Those studies focused on the low swimming ability of minority children. Results from 2010 found that 70% of African-American children, almost 60% of Hispanic/Latino children and 42% of Caucasian children had little to no swimming ability. By comparison, the 2017 results found those numbers had dropped to, respectively, 64%, 45% and and 40%.

“We’re thrilled that the study revealed improvements," said Debbie Hesse, executive director of the USA Swimming Foundation. “But at the same time, it’s still pretty tragic that 79% of children in low-income families have little or no swim ability.”

To ensure an accurate comparison between studies, researchers used a similar scale of questions asking participants to rate their swimming ability. Based on responses, children and their parents could be labeled with no, low, or good swimming ability. The baseline answer for no swimming ability was “I avoid getting near/in water except to bathe.” The most proficient swimmers with good ability answered yes to “Can swim many lengths without stopping or could be on a swim team.”

YMCAs with access to large minority populations served as the primary sites for data collection in all three studies.

"Using trends outlined by the results from all three studies will help communities initiate strategies and programs to protect their children from the horrific tragedy of drowning," said Dr. Carol Irwin, Ph.D, the study’s principal investigator, from University of Memphis.

In addition to measuring swimming ability, the study also examined motivators and obstacles for learning how to swim. Findings showed that socio-economic circumstances, race/ethnicity, parents’ ability to swim, and fear of drowning all factor into a child’s swimming ability and desire to learn.

The family component to swimming is something the industry has known anecdotally. Study results back this, finding that children whose parents have good swimming ability were 4.3 times more likely to show the same strengths.

“There are very few things we do in our lives that will still have a positive impact 100 years from now,” said Tom Lachocki, CEO of National Swimming Pool Foundation. “When we teach a child to swim, we’re really teaching their great grandchildren to swim.”

Swim schools and learn-to-swim advocates are encouraged by the increase, with some saying they’ve seen an uptick in attendance. Earlier this year, Aquatics International reported on the recent boom in swim school franchises.

Hess says she hopes the work of the Foundation has helped to improve swimming ability and interest.

Jennifer White, chief operating officer and swim school specialist at Starfish Aquatics Institute, believes media coverage of events – such as The World’s Largest Swim Lesson – and social media also may play a role in the increased public interest in water safety.

“We have a lot of videos [on our social channels] of two- and three-year-olds performing skills that [show parents] if you put your 2-year-old in a quality program, they can swim 25 yards across the pool,” she said.

The USA Swimming Foundation and other organizations that share its goal of teaching children to swim are happy to see any growth in swimming ability and swim-lesson interest. But they still believe there’s a lot of work to be done.

For its part, Hesse says, the USA Swimming Foundation will continue to focus on increasing its number of Make a Splash Partners and working with ambassadors like Simone Manuel to encourage more African Americans to learn to swim.