Swim lessons aim to kick a racial disparity


Nineteen-year-old Rebecca Gray, left, of Alexandria keeps her face above water while her body is submerged at an attempt to break a Guinness World Record for the world’s largest swimming lesson at Upton Hill Regional Park in Arlington County. (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST)
June 14, 2012

Kennedy Fleming, 9, was trying to float on her back in the Upton Hill Regional Park swimming pool in Arlington.

But just as she was about to throw her legs up, she tilted her head too far back. In seconds, her pink goggles were engulfed underwater.

“It’s kind of hard because I don’t know how to do it yet,” Kennedy said.

“It was important to me that my little ones know how to swim,” Kennedy’s mother, Nikki Fleming, said of her daughter and son, D.J., 11, both of whom started the activity at 5. “There’s still a little more they could learn, but they’re good with freestyle and going underwater. There’s always room for improvement.”

The Flemings were among nearly 20 families who gathered at the Arlington water park Thursday as part of an effort to hold the world’s largest swimming lesson. For 30 minutes, children and parents learned about water safety, basic swim strokes and breathing techniques.

The event, sponsored by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s “Pool Safely” campaign, was trying to break its own record from last year, when more than 20,000 kids and adults worldwide learned water safety simultaneously.

But more than trying to set a record, the event aims to reduce child drownings. Nearly 75 percent of children who drown are younger than 5. An average of 390 children younger than 15 die annually in pool or spa-related drownings, according to the consumer product commission.

African American and Hispanic children between ages 5 and 14 also drown at higher rates than white children, with the rate among African Americans ages 5 to 14 almost three times more than white children.

“This is a number that needs to change,” said Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the safety commission. “We’ve been traveling all over the U.S. to highlight the importance of changing the culture of teaching parents the importance of swim lessons.”

Limited access to community pools and a lack of swimming experience in generations of families have been cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CPSC as causes of the racial disparities in drownings.

With funds from Congress, Tenenbaum said the commission has distributed grants and worked with community groups and nonprofit groups to sponsor swim safety programs.

Safe Kids Worldwide, a District-based organization, is one of them. Its water safety programs focus on safety at home, around pools and open water, and on teaching CPR. The group has about 600 coalition partners nationwide, with nearly 20 partners in Maryland, Virginia and the District.

Kate Carr, president and chief executive of Safe Kids, said swim lessons and water safety are crucial to saving lives.

“If [kids] learn to swim before 8, they’re likely to master the skill, but after that age they’re unlikely to learn how to swim,” Carr said.

While the Consumer Product Safety Commission works to promote the program this summer, Nikki Fleming said that finding ways for more people of color to learn about the safety programs will help the cause.

“Exposure in those communities is really important,” Fleming said. “It’s important [that] generations pass that information down and are exposed to different swim environments.

“It’s good that kids can even be role models for older people, too,” she said.

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