Feature Article - July 2009
Find a printable version here

Water Hazard

Managing Aquatic Risk

By Daniel Margolis

Identifying 'At Risk' Swimmers Early

Drowning rates for ethnic minority swimmers have been recorded as being three times that of their Caucasian peers. Carol Irwin, assistant professor, health sport sciences, at the University of Memphis in Tennessee, wanted to get to the bottom of this trend. So in January 2008 she went to six urban sites across the United States and gathered 17,000 completed surveys on the subject of children's swimming ability. In the study, sponsored by USA Swimming, 58 percent of African-American children and 56 percent of Hispanic/Latino children indicated they were "at risk" swimmers, meaning they have limited swimming ability; they're either unable to swim or comfortable only in the shallow end of a pool. Only 31 percent of white children, by comparison, indicated they were at risk.

However, in looking deeper at the study's findings, Irwin determined the causal factor to be not so much race, but the children's parents' level of education and income, and therefore she concluded that the trend is socioeconomic in nature.

"What we ended up concluding is really it's not a race issue, it's an income issue," Irwin said. "So what really needs to be done is to try to reach out to those kids who can't afford swim lessons to either get free or low-cost swim lessons, as well as just encourage these kids to swim, because they're drowning at such high rates."

The problem also stems from an aversion to water handed down from generation to generation. "These parents, many of them specifically said they didn't want their kids to be involved in lessons because they might drown, which is so counterintuitive," Irwin said. "Their parents told them to stay out of the water; they didn't learn how to swim so they're just repeating the same message."

The study's results have been published in the International Journal of Aquatics Research and Education, and have also led to the launch of a pilot program in which local sponsors are offering swim lessons to marginalized children in poor areas in Memphis, as well as organizing a diversity swim meet. Irwin said, "We're excited to actually see our research doing something and hope that it can be replicated in other areas."