The Swimming Imperative

By Jim McCloskey

I spend a lot of time wandering around the web looking for information to share with followers of WaterShapes.com’s “Around the Internet” and “Aquatic Health, Fitness & Safety” sections and of the “The WaterShapes Web Café” feature that appear in each edition of the WaterShapes newsletter.

This browsing can be fun and entertaining, but there’s also distressing strain of information on misadventures that take place in the water.  They’re not isolated to watershapes of any one type and include fountains, pools, ponds, spas and various other waterfeatures installed on commercial, institutional and residential properties.  They also carry out into the natural world, with many incidents related to oceans, lakes, rivers, ponds and various other puddles.

I try not to let these stories about drownings and near-drownings get to me, and I consider all of the exceptional circumstances that define so many of these stories –  broken ice and hypothermic shock, toddlers evading alarms, traffic accidents that result in automobiles toppling into open water.  It’s a drumbeat that conjures dark thoughts and real concerns.

It always brings me back to a belief I have that universal swimming education is a great idea.  If the acquisition of swimming skills were a compulsory part of the process of growing up, isn’t it possible there would be more survivors of these misadventures?

I bring this up after reading an article in the Irish Times by Brian O’Connor.  Titled “Tipping Point:  Compulsory swimming in schools would benefit whole country,” it’s all about the value of people knowing how to swim – even though those people might not be inclined to get in the water, which is something I can understand after having dipped my toes in the cool, cool water that fills most Irish watershapes and natural waterways.

What he recommends is actual swimming – not just the ability to cross a full length of a good-sized pool while ingesting huge volumes of water, but actually demonstrating a command of one of life’s fundamental skills as a requirement of passing through school.

“Even those who otherwise despise sport,” writes O’Connor, “can recognise the value of being able to swim.  It can, literally, save your life, maybe even someone else’s.  It’s also a skill that lasts a lifetime, with all the attendant benefits.”

“Watching my own [kids] in the pool last week, like sleek seals completely at home, it was impossible to put a value on their ease in the water,” he wrote – then admitted that he himself hadn’t learned to swim as a child.

“This mottled Mick managed to get baked in Byron Bay without once getting in the sea,” O’Connor continued, “a notable achievement considering the whole point of Australia is water.  Cape Town’s penguins had the Boulders water to themselves.  And who goes to the Caribbean to walk around the sights?”

But he made up for lost time:  “Learning to swim as an adult is an ordeal and it eventually took countless boring, resentful and fruitless early-morning pool trips until anger won out.  It takes getting to a stage where you get so sick of not doing it that you actually wind up doing it.  Pretty to watch it can’t have been, but the sense of accomplishment at completing a first length of the pool was overwhelming.  However, it was never the natural process it would be if I had learned as a kid.”

“Invariably, he added, “some will say it should be up to parents to teach their own kids instead of passing the buck to already overloaded schools.  And there’s always the eternal facilities wail.  But there’s a bigger picture here in terms of long-term benefits to a state from backing a healthy activity which is enjoyable enough for even non-sporty kids to embrace rather than resent – if they can swim.”

I’ve let Mr. O’Connor speak for himself so far, so I’ll let him bring the argument home:  “Learning to swim is an absolute good,” he concluded:  “It can’t hurt you.  It doesn’t matter how old you are.”

Amen.

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