Advocating for Safer Swimming

In recent years, more cities and park districts have stepped up efforts to provide swimming education to all their residents. For instance, in New York City, the parks department offers free swim lessons to people of all ages at their free outdoor pools through an online lottery system. And the Making Waves program there offers free learn-to-swim and water safety instruction to people aged 6 to 18 who live in low-income neighborhoods, with classes being held at public schools.

But there's still a long way to go. Drowning remains the second leading cause of accidental death among those 14 and under. About 10 people drown in the United States each day, and three of those are kids, with a disproportionate number of them being minorities or kids from low-income households.

Organizations such as the American Red Cross and the National Swimming Pool Foundation (NSPF), along with smaller, local nonprofits like Howard's Hope, are promoting campaigns designed to provide all kids with swimming lessons. There are individuals making a big impact on this front as well, and Dr. Jane Katz is certainly one of those people.

Dr. Katz has taught thousands of kids in New York City how to swim, starting in 1964 at City University of New York (CUNY) and specifically at John Jay College since 1989, where she's a professor in the Department of Health and Physical Education. She's also taught kids and adults about the health and therapeutic benefits of swimming at many other venues in and around NYC.

"At the age of 7 I knew I wanted to swim, and teach swimming for my life," Katz said. "55 years later I'm still teaching it."

Katz has travelled the world instructing and competing. She was a member of the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Performance Team that appeared at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, pioneering the acceptance of the sport as an Olympic event. Still competing today, Katz recently captured two gold and four silver medals at the 2018 Pan American Master Championships in Orlando, in the 75-79 age-group.

But she's most passionate about teaching people, especially those who are less privileged, and it breaks her heart to hear of water tragedies. "It's a shame because there's no reason for it," she said. "It's time for the age of enlightenment; we're in the 21st century with so many things that are so advanced, and yet when someone suffers that experience they're terrified, they won't go near the water."

Katz helped create the Kids Aquatic Re-Entry Program (KARE), working with the Juvenile Justice Department to help troubled youth. She started "W.E.T.s 4 Vets," a program for returning veterans to help them reintegrate into civilian life through Water Exercise Techniques. She's a big proponent and innovator of water aerobics and water therapy, and loves to work with seniors, pointing out that many of the women never learned to swim because they weren't allowed to.

So Dr. Katz will continue teaching everyone she can, as her father did in NYC public pools when she was a girl. "He would always say, 'Later days, pass it on.' Well, I'm 75 and I'm still doing it, and it's an honor to be able to do it."