By Stephen McKay
Sports Writer 

Talking Sports: Fear of water should be halted early in life


I came across a several-year old story in Slate magazine that discussed the drowning deaths of six teenagers in Louisiana. None of the victims or the adult bystanders knew how to swim.

The article went on to state that it was likely that one-third to about one-half of Americans couldn't swim. Further, a 1994 survey was cited in which 37 percent of American adults said they couldn't swim 24 yards.

A University of Memphis study revealed that 54 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 18 couldn't do any more than wade in the shallow end of a pool.

Broken down demographically, the study found that 58 percent of white's between the ages 4 and 18 claimed they were able to swim once across a pool. Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were close behind at 55 percent.

The drop off is more dramatic for Latinos of the same age group with only 42 percent reporting to be strong swimmers. For Asian-Americans, the number is 34 percent and 32 percent for Native-Americans. For African-American children, only 31 percent claimed they could reach the other end of a pool. The Slate article reported that black children between the ages of 5 and 14 are more than three times more likely to drown as are their white peers.

Since accident rates generally follow these findings, the above numbers seem legitimate. The number of children and adults not able to swim is surprising – at least to me. I don't know what the numbers are in the Nebraska panhandle.

What's even more startling is how many die from "unintentional drowning" each year. According to the CDC, about 10 people drown each day. Of the 10, two are children aged 14 and under. Furthermore, the CDC cites drowning as ranking fifth among the leading causes of unintentional injury death in the United States.

Considering Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders live on an Island, it makes sense they would be among the most competent swimmers. I grew up on an island – Long Island, that is – and didn't know anyone who couldn't swim. My mother taught me how to swim before I knew how to read or tie my shoes. As my mother told us, her father taught her to swim by throwing her in a lake and telling her to, "swim."

Though my mother's methods were not quite so dramatic, it was a one of her priorities to teach her seven children to swim – and very early.

As the Sun-Telegraph followed the progress of the Sidney Stingrays this summer, I was interested to hear coach Charlotte Dorwart talk about many of the younger kids who were once afraid of the water. The fear in some was so strong that Dorwart would develop welts on her arms caused by the grip of frightened children.

By the end of the season, fear of the water was a distant memory for all. Not only was the fear gone, but now there was joy. Kids, who only a short time before were afraid of the water, were now going to the city pool for recreation – and laughing, screaming and jumping off the diving board to boot.

After reading the grim numbers on drowning deaths, I get it now. In addition to all the other benefits of teaching kids how to swim – it's not just about winning events. They all win. Not only are the Singrays learning an activity they can do all their lives, they may also be learning how to save their life – or someone else's.


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