Encouraging More Adults to Swim
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Spreading the Love

April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month and USMS members are sharing their passion

Kristin Bender | April 2, 2014

Pictured: Kelly Siu and her instructor, Walnut Creek Masters swimmer Mike Piazza. Walnut Creek Masters, a Swimming Saves Lives Foundation partner program, received a 2013 grant to teach adults to swim. Read Siu’s story and learn more about the “April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month” campaign in the May-June issue of SWIMMER magazine

To many USMS members—avid swimmers who range from casual fitness swimmers and weekend warrior triathletes to Olympic-caliber pool competitors and adventurous open water swimmers—it can be hard to imagine being an adult who’s unable to swim or is afraid in the water.

But as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports, water avoidance is a fact of life for millions of American adults; 37 percent of American adults cannot swim the length of a standard pool. In a country that has 18 million swimming pools and hot tubs—not to mention millions of open water swimming holes—that’s a lot of water to maneuver around.

Another frightening reality is that every day, 10 people drown in America, eight of them adults or young adults. In addition, research shows that children of adults who don’t know how to swim are less likely to learn how to swim, thus perpetuating water avoidance and the risk of drowning in the next generation.

These are big issues that U.S. Masters Swimming’s charitable arm, the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, is taking on—this month in particular—with the announcement that April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month. SSLF is the charitable arm of USMS, and it provides grants to its program partners across the country for adult learn-to-swim lessons.

The foundation was established in 2010 to address the very real and dangerous problem of adult drowning. By early 2014, SSLF had raised more than $250,000 to support its focus on teaching adults to swim—a goal that also supports USMS’s broader organizational focus on encouraging adults to swim. In turn, the foundation has already granted in excess of $70,000 to more than 20 different SSLF partner programs around the U.S. And the message is growing and catching on: It’s time to bring this cause, and some of its success stories, to the forefront.

April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month

April—a month when pools and open water swimming spots are beginning to shake off the winter doldrums and come back to life for the summer season—is the perfect time for adults who can’t swim to get lessons. Adults who enroll in a SSLF partner program will be assisted in their quest by qualified, friendly, and dedicated volunteers who are very happy to share their passion for the water with new swimmers. By getting to share their joy for swimming, Masters swimmers who volunteer as instructors at SSLF-funded learn-to-swim programs are giving not just time, but expertise and joy, too.

Beverly Dubrin, 72, and a member of the Walnut Creek Masters in Walnut Creek, Calif., for the past 18 years says swimming has been a pleasurable part of her life for as long as she can remember. “I grew up swimming at the beach in summers. I never had fear of the water.” Still, she was intrigued by others who did. “I’d never taught swimming but wanted to share my joy in the water with others. I liked the Swimming Saves Lives [Foundation’s] one-on-one approach.” So it was an easy thing for her to commit to helping other adults learn to swim.

Her first student, a woman in her 30s, was afraid to be in water where she could not stand up and panicked with her face in the water, Dubrin says. “By the end of our first lesson, she was confident and knew how to recover if she got water in her nose or mouth. By the end of our week together, she was able to swim the length of the pool. This was an empowering experience for both of us.’’ Dubrin says.

Marie Lin, 65, also volunteers with the Walnut Creek program, and says she finds great joy in watching students who were once terrified of water swim confidently after just a few lessons. She should know how powerful that transition can be: She was once a frightened nonswimmer, too, but with the help of Walnut Creek Masters coach Kerry O’Brien, she overcame her own fears and is now happy to pass along that confidence to others.

“I wanted to give back,’’ she says. “The biggest reward was the big smile on one of my swimmers’ faces when she was able to swim a 50 without the snorkel and the kickboard on her third day in the water,’’ she says.

Susan Gore, a volunteer at the Chatham County Aquatic Center in Savannah, Ga., says, “Participating in the adult swim lesson program has been an amazing experience. To watch adults go from being afraid to put their faces in the water to doing the crawl stroke with correct breathing is unbelievable. Given the opportunity, a little encouragement, and some patience, these adults are accomplishing lifesaving skills.”

And these skills pay dividends for the next generation, too, as Anjali Junghare, a 33-year-old mother of two who was born and raised in India found out last summer when she attended an SSLF-funded learn-to-swim program. “I had tried to learn in India from one teacher, but it was scary because we started in 16-foot-deep water,” says Junghare, who moved to Keller, Texas, a decade ago. “He would just throw us in one by one. We couldn’t learn that way.’’

It should come as no surprise that Junghare developed a fear of water that persisted into adulthood. But she felt it was important that her children know how to swim, and she wanted to set a good example. “It can be a lifesaver if you know swimming,’’ she says. It just took a little effort and a commitment to try.

Within weeks of starting her lessons, Junghare could float on her back, roll over onto her stomach, do a rudimentary breaststroke, and complete one lap of the pool.

“I am pretty sure I won’t drown if I fell into the water,’’ she says. Her son has progressed well, too, she says. “He’s doing better than me. He’s not afraid of the water at all. He actually learned to do a somersault and a back flip. He can swim laps, no problem.”

Water safety is the primary goal of the SSLF and the April is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month initiative. But there’s a bigger hope at work here, too—the wish that some of these adults who learn to swim may become more than just water safe and cross over to our side of the pool, the side that simply loves to swim. Perhaps one day, some of these adults will develop a desire to continue swimming for the wealth of health, fitness, and social benefits it can provide.

With time, that could become a pleasant change of reality for some adults. For now, if you know an adult who’s afraid to swim or can’t swim, help them find lessons in their area; search the USMS databases of Places to Swim to find lessons locally. If your Masters club has a learn-to-swim program, consider volunteering to help other adults learn to swim. A small investment of time can make a life-changing and potentially lifesaving difference for someone you help.

And one of the simplest ways to help is by donating online to the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation. One-hundred-percent of all charitable donations made to the SSLF go towards instructing adults in water safety via partner programs across the country. 

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About the Author—Kristin Bender

Kristin J. Bender has worked as a newspaper reporter in Oakland, Calif. for the past 14 years, where she covers crime and breaking news. She has contributed first-person stories about going to the Price is Right game show, climbing an 80-foot tree to visit with Berkeley tree sitters, and trying to land an interview with fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. She runs a good-news blog called allnewsnoblues.com. She swims unattached with Masters clubs in the San Francisco Bay Area and in open water wherever she can find it. 

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