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by Elaine K Howley

March 2, 2020

Mia Erickson Stevens helps recruits pass the swimming test that’s part of the Navy’s entrance requirements

Like many adult learn-to-swim instructors, Mia Erickson Stevens has been an avid swimmer most of her life. She says she learned to swim before she could walk and swam all through grade school, high school, and at Radford University in Virginia. She picked up triathlon in 1986, not long after she first started teaching at a YMCA in Virginia. “I’ve always been swimming,” she says, and that easily carried over into teaching others to swim as well, something she’s done for 34 years.

“I coach a Masters swim team, and pretty much all of my swimmers were fairly beginner swimmers,” Erickson Stevens says. “I slowly progressed them. This has been a 10-year process, and some of them are now competing in triathlon or a mile open water swim when they couldn’t swim at all before.”

Erickson Stevens’s Masters club, Gulf Coast Multi-Sport in Slidell, La., applied for and received a USMS Swimming Saves Lives Foundation grant as part of the April Is Adult Learn-to-Swim Month campaign in 2020. It’s the third time the program has been awarded a grant. In 2019, the group taught 40 people to swim during April, she says.

It seems there’s a real need in her community near New Orleans for adult learn-to-swim lessons. One high-need group is Naval recruits. “I’ve been working with a Navy recruiter,” she says. “They see a lot of people who come in and can’t swim well enough to past the test” to join the Navy, so the recruiter will refer these individuals to Erickson Stevens’s program. After a five-week course of lessons, most of those recruits can pass the test and move forward with their Naval careers.

And it’s not just the Navy. Over the years, Erickson Stevens has taught a lot of other military members from the Coast Guard and Marines how to swim too. “They all need to do the basic swim test” to enter their chosen branch of the military, she says. But many of them are afraid and can’t swim, and thus an otherwise potentially great career path is blocked off.

In addition to military personnel, Erickson Stevens has also taught many other members of her coastal community. Given that there’s so much water around, “it’s a safety thing. If you drive off the road and can’t swim …,” she says, trailing off. “I’m so concerned, because so many people don’t know how to swim. It’s a huge safety issue in our area because everything is surrounded by water. People freak out if their car goes into the water. They aren’t going to make it, and you hear about it all the time.”

So getting water safety skills and knowledge into the community is a social imperative, she says, and one that she’s happy to serve.

In 2020, her program will offer free adult learn-to-swim lessons from the second week in April through the first week of May. Erickson Stevens says she was motivated to apply for the grant because “we need adult learn-to-swim opportunities in our area, not just for adults, but kids too,” noting that the best way to help more kids learn to swim is to get their parents more comfortable around water. Children of an adult who doesn’t know how to swim have only a 19 percent chance of learning. “If you’re a parent, you need to learn and then get your kids involved too,” she says. 

After so many years of working with swimmers all along the spectrum of ability and the learn-to-swim progression, teaching others to swim and be water safe has become a calling for Erickson Stevens. “I never thought I’d still be teaching,” but she says she keeps coming back year after year because of how life-changing learning to swim can be, especially for individuals who were once very fearful of the water.

“I love seeing them progress and get better,” she says. “They come back years later and say they’ve done an Ironman. And I think, ‘This person was scared to death of the water,’” when first arriving for lessons. Or in the case of some of the military members she’s worked with, where once they couldn’t even put their face in the water, “now they can jump off the ship and pass their test. It’s great” to see such enormous progress and how swimming can open really important doors for so many people.


  • Adult Learn-to-Swim


  • ALTS
  • Swimming Saves Lives Foundation