Facing Our Aquatic Future

By Jim McCloskey

I don’t want to come across like a grumpy old man, but I don’t think kids today are experiencing anything like the aquatic childhood I did.

I grew up swimming and bathing and playing in commercial and private swimming pools; wooden, plastic and concrete hot tubs; streams, lakes, rivers, oceans, seas, bays, sounds and gulfs. I still swim and know I always will.

I grew up taking

long hikes to reach secluded natural pools – and, better still, waterfalls of various kinds – just to see and hear and feel what the water was doing. I am still drawn to the water and always will be.

As a kid, I paddled rafts and rowboats around the canals in Venice, Calif., rafted rivers in Oregon and worked my way up to a serious crush on sailboats – especially at the moment when the motor cuts off and wind fills the sheets for the first time. I have always loved being out on the water, and always will.

I absolutely hate noticing the degree to which the aquatically varied life I’ve enjoyed is becoming less and less accessible to those in generations that have followed mine.

Let’s start at the foundation: It’s harder now to find the low-cost/no-cost, municipal-pool-style swimming lessons I (and most of the kids I knew) went through to gain confidence when immersed in water. It’s harder to find the sort of public pools and safe beaches where we practiced and reinforced those swimming skills – although that may be immaterial, because it’s also harder to feel safe when dipping into just about any body of water these days when it seems that all we hear are stories about brain-eating bacteria and fecal matter and other illness-inducing entities we’ve all been taught to fear.

Nothing much stopped me when I was a kid. Yes, I suffered digestive distress a time or two after ill-advised swims, but I also believe that rolling through life unchallenged by minor environmental hazards is courting a certain amount of trouble anyway. Besides, there was too much fun to be had, and I’m not certain I’d have sacrificed any of it to excessive caution.

My own kids are lucky enough to have grown up in a house with a nice, well-maintained pool, and I’m looking forward someday to introducing my granddaughter to the joys of competence in and around water. But the skill that came to me in a public pool at the insistence of my swimming parents, it seems, is now something of a privilege: Almost every day, I read stories about lack of access to swimming lessons, about pools falling into disrepair, about pools in good shape being threatened by budget cuts – basically a crisis of access to one of life’s most fundamental and valuable skills.

As with so many other challenges facing us, this is one we need to figure out on a societal level, because competence in water is just too valuable a human skill. Without it, encounters with water are far likelier to become accidents instead of memorable experiences.

For starters, we need to figure out ways to make swimming education a routine part of the school curriculum the way it was through my early years. We also need – and I promise my sermon is nearly done – to figure out ways to put more public pools in the ground at lower cost and with greater accessibility than has been the case in recent years.

I know that many people buy pools and other watershapes for visual drama rather than as recreational outlets, but in a world in which fewer and fewer are able to swim, I can only imagine that it will become increasingly difficult to persuade people that water, in any form, is an important, safe, valuable, daily feature of their public and private lives.

We need a new boom in watershaping, and it won’t be strictly for the benefit of watershapers: It’ll be good for everyone.

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