Comfort in the Water

By Jim McCloskey

As I’ve mentioned previously in this space, I spend a fair amount of time every day searching the Web for items to include in the Around the Internet and Aquatic Health, Fitness & Safety sections of watershapes.com.

I only began this exercise last fall – well out of the swimming season, so it’s just in recent weeks that I’ve started completing the cycle and getting a sense of the annual rhythm of these stories.  One distressing observation:  As the summer wears on, the number of news reports about drownings and near-drownings is simply overwhelming.

Throughout my career around watershaping, I have been close to the pool and spa industry the longest and am well aware of the statistics on drownings and near-drownings in swimming pools and hot tubs.  But my Web surfing has exposed me to a broader range of reports, and I’ve become increasingly conscious of the many accidents that occur in and around ponds, waterfalls, rivers and lakes.

These incidents occur in all aquatic venues – and I’m inclined to think that many of them are preventable.

No, it’s not just about more lifeguards, more lifeguard towers, more vigilance and more supervision – although all of those are vital.  More important, it’s very much about teaching our children to swim.  And, lest we forget, it’s also about teaching adults who never learned how to swim to be able to do so.  Bottom line:  Everyone should know how to swim!

My wife and I moved into a house with a swimming pool when our oldest daughter was three and the other two were still twinkles in my eye.  I grew up near the Pacific Ocean and started swimming lessons at the age of seven, but I knew that my own kids – because of our backyard pool – would need to become comfortable swimmers much earlier than that.  So we worked with them in the water at tender ages, and all three now know their way around pooled water of every description.

Yes, accidents do happen.  And being caught in unfamiliar, dangerous situations such as rip tides at the beach or eddies in rivers can short-circuit proper responses and lead to panic that works against even capable swimmers.  But I believe many tragedies could be avoided if the people involved – of any age, in any place and at any time – knew how to push beyond panic to helpful action.

I have been caught in riptides and once was thrown out of a raft into a wild river.  In both situations, I was forced to make immediate, highly consequential decisions.  Each time, my confidence in my own ability to be buoyant in water was important to my survival.  Had I not learned to swim, had I not continued to practice swimming all the way to those critical points in my life, I can’t say for certain that I would have made it.

That’s why both my wife and I have done everything possible to teach our daughters to swim.  Our goal?  To help them be comfortable enough in the water that they can hold panic at bay and extract themselves from bad aquatic situations.

My point here is simple:  Do what you can to make swimming instruction available in your communities.  Push to open new public pools instead of watching old ones close down.  Make swimming lessons affordable or, better yet, free.  Know that whether you design or build pools, spas, fountains, ponds, streams, waterfeatures or lakes, the lives of those who use what you create may depend on making the right split-second responses in times of danger.  The more we can do to help transform these frightening situations into survivable moments, the better.

We’re all in the business of turning water into big parts of peoples’ lives.  This profession comes with responsibilities, and making certain people know how to swim is one of them.

Please take a moment to share your own experiences and help all of us understand what can and should be done to make swimming part of every child’s (and adult’s) education.

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