Feature Article - April 2006
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Safe Swimming

Managing risk at aquatic facilities

By Kyle Ryan

Reaching Aquaphobics

Although statistics show that aquaphobics comprise a tiny portion of drownings, people who have an intense fear of water obviously can be a risky demographic for an aquatic facility. Chances are, though, they won't even get near a swimming pool.

Jeff Krieger, a 30-year veteran swimming instructor with a masters in psychology, wanted to work with them. Around 2000, he noticed a seemingly dramatic increase in the number of people admitting to a fear of water. That troubled him.

"I feel that a person that can't benefit from aquatic experiences really misses out on a lot throughout their life," he says, adding he learned to swim before he learned to walk.

So Krieger developed SOAP: Strategies for Overcoming Aquatic Phobias. Using an eight-week program for one hour a week, he has designed a way to help aquaphobics overcome (or at least address) their fears. Aquaphobics, he says, share many characteristics: They can't rationalize well in water, they encounter breathing problems, they genuinely fear for their lives (even in four feet of water), etc.

He addresses that by slowly easing people into water. For the first class, participants spend 70 percent of their time on land and 30 percent in water—and even then it's in a whirlpool with rubber duckies. Those percentages shift as the course progresses.

When he began the program, Krieger was shocked by who came: adults ages 30 to 70, not the high-school kids he expected. They were professionals, an ex-Marine, teachers and others who had lived their entire lives with this heavy burden. After the course, all but one of them was comfortable in the water. A few regularly were jumping off the diving board.

Krieger's currently in negotiations with the Red Cross the make SOAP a national program, and he's in the process of training his first set of instructors.