KEY BISCAYNE, Florida – Six-year-old Queen Epps is decked out in her pink Spongebob Squarepants bathing suit and purple goggles, ready to learn how to hold her breath.
She is one of 17 students from Liberty City—one of Miami’s most impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods—sitting along the edge of the pool, splashing their legs in the water and holding the sides as they learn to blow bubbles and get in and out of the pool.
All are part of the majority of African-American and Hispanic children across the country who don’t know how to swim—and here at the Swim Gym along the banks of Biscayne Bay, they’re part of the outreach effort to help get kids into the water.
The issue came to Americans’ attention after six African-American teens drowned in a Louisiana river Monday. None could swim, and neither could their families as they watched in horror while they drowned one by one.
“It’s a safety issue. We say, you don’t send your son out to play football without wearing a helmet, yet people go to the beach and they don’t know how to swim,” said Sue Anderson, USA Swimming’s Director of Programs and Services.
USA Swimming commissioned a study conducted by the University of Memphis and released in May that showed 69 percent of Black children and 58 percent of Hispanic kids either had low or no swimming ability.
Anderson said USA Swimming is working to develop a network of partners under the Make A Splash initiative to help children learn to swim and is giving some of them grants that will provide free or reduced-priced lessons.
Parental fear and lack of parental encouragement were the top two reasons children and parents gave for not swimming, she said.
“I think we figured out the level and how embedded the fears are in many populations. It’s like this legacy of fear that keeps getting handed down,” said Dr. Carol Irwin, an assistant professor at the University of Memphis who carried out the study with her husband, Richard, a professor in health and sport sciences.
Recreational swimming became popular in the 1920s and ’30s with the construction of resort-style public swimming pools across the country, said Jeff Wiltse, author of the book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Competitive swimming followed in the 1950s and ’60s—but at private club pools, where Black Americans were denied access.
Wiltse said the swimming disparity continues now because poor and working class Americans have limited access to pools.
“What we need are large, desirable swimming facilities and swim lessons in poor and working class neighborhoods,” Wiltse said.
The Swim Gym swimming school was founded by Robert Strauss, who competed in the 1972 Olympics in swimming and has since dedicated his life to teaching the sport. He is a local partner and a spokesman for USA Swimming in trying to do outreach to the Hispanic community.
“I wish I could go into the community to show them their children will not drown if they go into the water,” he said.
Jacqueline Clenance, chief program officer at the Belafonte Tacolcy Center Inc. in Liberty City, which sent today’s 17 students to the program, said it’s the second year they have teamed up with Swim Gym. Ironically, many of the children at the center who live in downtown Miami will never go to the beaches that line Florida’s coasts, she said.
“It’s very often that they live in a limited circle, a limited geographical area,” she said.
But the swimming lessons will have a lasting effect, she added.
“Let’s face it, it could save their lives in a situation,” Clenance said. “It has a lifelong impact. … Hopefully, it will encourage them to spend more time in the water.”
At the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco, aquatics director Becky Wildman-Tobriner has been using the grant from USA Swimming to pay for gas and transportation to bring children to the facility for their swimming lessons. Their program—called Starfish Aquatics—has a sliding scale for fees. Children can pay as little as $5 for eight half-hour classes.
Wildman-Tobriner says she wants to make swimming accessible to everyone.
“What we are trying to do is create a culture of swimming in the African-American community,” she said. “I think that the kids that are learning now will probably grow up and say, ‘Oh yeah, my kids should learn how to swim.’ Like most things it takes a few generations to become part of life.”