Swimming – No, Not A Metaphor, This Post Is About Swimming

The other day I put up a post that was a longer project sidelined by more pressing business. People liked it. So here’s another one that I’ve been meaning to get to and will do in brief here: We really ought to do more to teach kids to swim.

Drowning claims more than 3500 people annually in the United States. More than 300 more die from drowning in boating accidents. Black Americans die at substantially higher rates than white Americans. It’s a leading cause of accidental death accounting for a third of accidental deaths in children aged 1-4. One in five victims is under 14.

3800 deaths annually is a lot more people than die in many other ways that we hear about a lot more in media and social media. Mass school shootings are shocking and terrifying but a student’s chances of being killed in one is less than their chance of being killed by lightning, for instance. We have a problem with prevalence in the modern communication environment.

In other words, it’s a problem. And it’s somewhat preventable.

In the early part of the 20th Century swimming requirements were common in higher education. Some of this owed to military training and some to a national effort to improve water safety. In the mid-1970s more than 40 percent of colleges still had some sort of swimming requirement. Today that figure has fallen to 8 percent. The decline in emphasis is interesting given that there is the same amount of water on earth now as in the past. Look it up.

The requirements that do exist are not especially demanding, swim a few laps and tread water is a common one. Still, that’s enough to save someone’s life in the event of an accidental immersion. We don’t need to turn kids into little Phelpses, we just need them to be able to survive.

No state requires swimming for high school graduation. Minnesota considered the idea a few years ago but concluded it was too expensive. A small number of school districts do require it and some districts and schools have it as part of the curriculum – sometimes just because an enterprising principal thinks it’s important.

At Oakland Technical High School students have to be able to swim 25 yards and retrieve an object. Osceola County in Florida has a program for kindergarten and first grade students. In Wenatchee School District in Washington State incoming high school freshman take a swim test with swim classes required for students who need it. I knew a principal who on her own made sure her elementary school students, mostly low-income, got time in the local pool on Friday’s when the weather was still warm.

An ability to swim will not prevent every drowning. Other factors sometimes are present and accidents are an unfortunate fact of life. But an emphasis on swimming proficiency would save lives. Perhaps a substantial number. And it would create a culture of awareness and perhaps preparedness that would impact even very young children who are not yet in school and account for a lot of drownings each year.

So while it’s not as sexy an issue as some other reform issues and is one more thing on a crowded plate for schools, it matters to people’s lives. Arguably more than some of the other hoops we make students jump through. And public agencies beyond schools can play a role here, but schools are a focal point for youth. 3800 Americans is a lot. More than a Sept. 11th each year. The solution is not a mystery: Make sure young people can swim.