Feature Article - January 2008
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Aquatic Programming Gets Back to Basics

By Emily Tipping

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While drowning rates are disturbing in the United States, the statistics become downright alarming when ethnicity enters the picture. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, between 2000 and 2004, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African-Americans overall was 1.3 times that of whites. When you look at certain age groups, the numbers are even scarier. For 5- to 14-year-old African-Americans, the drowning rate was 3.2 higher than that for whites.

The CDC attributes these differences to the physical environment, such as access to places to swim, and a combination of social and cultural issues, such as placing value on swimming skills and choosing water recreation.

Jim Wheeler, aquatics director for the City of Oakland, Calif., said he was "shocked" at the number of young African-American males drowning, and said there's a great need for aquatics programs to address the needs of minorities.

"There's a huge push by USA Swimming, which has its Make a Splash program, where there is some grant money to help communities teach kids to swim," he said. "We have a whole USA Swim Team registered as the Undercurrents that was pretty much started to do outreach swimming, and they've already received some grants."

Dan Vawter, head coach at AquaChamps Swim School near Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said the impact of drowning on minorities is often forgotten when facilities plan aquatic programs. "Minority drownings are on the increase in almost every state—except Arizona," he said. "Every recreational facility needs to address how to get minorities involved in their programs."

It's more than money, he added. AquaChamps tried making lessons cheaper and offering scholarships, and discovered a barrier to entry that they had not considered. "It's also about transportation," he said. "A lot of these facilities aren't in areas where minorities live. Sometimes we think the way to reach minorities and lower-income people is to lower the price, but if you don't provide a means to make it available, the lower price isn't going to help anyone. You have to provide the facility, and transportation to the facility, as well as making it affordable."

AquaChamps is focusing heavily on this issue right now, as South Florida is number two in the country for minority drownings—not a statistic to brag about. "We want to do everything we can to reduce that," he said. As part of the Access to Success Scholarship program, the swim school is working with the Boys and Girls Club to provide transportation to the facility. In addition to swimming lessons, Vawter said the program allows these kids to work with a coach close to their age and talk about problems they may be facing, providing more of a mentoring relationship than just a swim instructor.

Lee Feris said the Keller ISD Natatorium in Keller, Texas, also offers programs to reach underserved youth in the community, including scholarships for swim lessons and a sponsorship program to help more kids attend the water safety program. "In our scholarship program for swim lessons," he said, "because of sponsorships we can offer 150 swim lessons free."

"I hope more recreational programs realize how important it is to get the minorities to their facility so they can have something to be inspired by and something to aspire to and fall in love with," Vawter said.

In Oakland, the city's commitment to its aquatic operations is based on a desire to expose more people to the water, Wheeler said. "I have pools in East and West Oakland that cater to minority populations completely," he explained. "I think the city of Oakland's commitment to subsidize aquatic operations is based on the fact that we do want all of our community groups to get exposure to the water in areas where there may not be a lot of that type of leisure activity."