Feature Article - January 2007
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Beyond the Lap Lane

Get more people in the pool with fresh aquatic programming for adults

By Stacy St. Clair

Conquering fear

Not all adult patrons are ready to jump into the water. A jaw-dropping number of Americans are terrified of swimming.

According to a recent Gallup survey, 39 percent of adults—78 million people—said they are afraid to put their heads under water. Forty-six percent, or 92 million, claimed to be scared of deep water.

The study also found that 62 percent

(a whopping 128 million people) feared deep, open water. This means that more than six out of every 10 people have a swimming aversion that the aquatic industry could be addressing.

But here's the heartening news: Of those 128 million people with water phobias, 41 percent say they'd like to overcome their fears. This means there are 52 million Americans waiting for assistance.

These numbers should serve as an inspiration to the aquatic industry. With an estimated 5,000 instructors in the United States today, that means each has a pool of roughly 10,400 potential patrons they could be teaching.

"If we want to grow the swimming industry—and I think we do—then we have to go after the biggest market and win them over," Dash said. "The biggest market right now is those who are afraid."

Tapping adults who are too scared to swim should have a positive impact on other programs, as well. Dash said parents who are frightened by the water often keep their children out of learn-to-swim classes.

Teach aquaphobes to love the water, Dash explained, and they will be more likely to enroll their children in aquatic programs. Ignore the problem, and the kids most likely will inherit their parents' reservations.

Dash, who has taught more than 3,000 adults to overcome their aquatic fears, has witnessed this phenomenon with her own eyes. She estimates that 90 percent of her students had at least one parent who was afraid of water.

"A lot of parents know their kids need swimming lessons," she said. "But a lot don't send them because they're afraid of the water and don't want anything bad to happen. We need to tap into that market."

To address the issue, Dash founded a swimming school in 1983 specifically for adults who were afraid to swim. Her aim isn't to teach them to master freestyle and backstroke by the course's end. Her initial concerns have nothing to do with whether they can tread water for long periods of time.

"The first step is to redefine swimming," she said. "I'll say, 'We know you might not be able to master freestyle. That's not the first step for you.'"

Oftentimes, the first step is just making the patron feel comfortable in the water. Only when that occurs can additional progress and other lessons take place, Dash said.

If a student doesn't like to let go of the pool wall, for example, Dash doesn't force him or her to try it right away. To the contrary, she encourages students to hang onto the side who want to. She tells them to feel the water, to think about how it feels and concentrate on how it moves against their bodies. It gives novices a chance to experience the water instead of allowing their reservations to consume them.