Debbie Hesse aches each time she reads an article about another child drowning in a lake, each time she hears a report about another child killed by drain entrapment in a pool.
“It has a cure, and the cure is swim lessons,” Hesse said. “That is the answer.”
The new executive director of the USA Swimming Foundation has made it her mission to minimize the risk of childhood drownings by ensuring kids know how to swim, spreading her message during the National Drowning Prevention Symposium, an annual seminar by the National Drowning Prevention Alliance lasting through Sunday at the Antlers Hilton.
Research conducted by the Colorado Springs-based USA Swimming Foundation in 2010 revealed that among American kids, 69 percent of blacks, 58 percent of Hispanics and 42 percent of whites were unable to swim. As a result, 531 kids drowned or almost drowned last year, according to the “Pool Safely” campaign, a public education project run by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. This year, there have been 72 incidents.
The campaign finds the highest rate of childhood drownings in Florida, Texas, California, Arizona and Louisiana – in Colorado, there were three cases last year, and there haven’t been any cases in 2011. The message of the government-funded campaign? “Simple steps save lives.” Teach your children to swim. Watch them in the water. Install fencing around pools. Put alarms on doors. Keep a phone nearby. Tell them to stay away from drains.
“We want to encourage people to swim,” said Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the CPSC. “But we also want to make sure people know there are behaviors that go along with being responsible. … People go to a pool or beach or lake, and they swim, and everyone starts having a good time. They’ll start having a barbecue, and somehow, children just are left unattended. A few minutes later, ‘Where’s Johnny?’ He’s at the bottom of the pool.”
There’s no reason kids shouldn’t be safe in the water if they’ve participated in the “Make a Splash” initiative, run by the USA Swimming Foundation. Since 2007, the initiative has provided 776,124 swim lessons, with 373 local partner programs in 45 states – Hesse set goals of more than 1 million lessons and more than 500 programs by the end of 2012.
National team member Madison Kennedy said children not raised around water are more likely to “barge right in. They’re like, ‘It’s fine. It’s water. It’s like my bathtub.’ It’s not. … It’s being comfortable around water and knowing what your limitations are. Knowing this is a situation you don’t feel comfortable or you don’t have the skill set or capability.”
Three-time Olympic gold medalist Rowdy Gaines puts the responsibility on parents to get their kids knowledgeable in the water. “It doesn’t matter whether they live in downtown Manhattan or on a lake in North Dakota,” Gaines said, stressing there’s “no reason why they shouldn’t teach their children how to swim. … The whole thing is just education.”