Groups Look to Boost Swimming Skills of Immigrants and MinoritiesMichael Friedlander
Seven-year-old Taylor Shire is too scared to play in the water at Rockaway Beach.
“I am nervous going into the water again because I almost did drown once,” said Taylor, of Rockaway Park. “I was out [in the water] and then the wave came, but we learned in school to swim the other way when you get caught” by a wave.
Blacks and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to drown as whites, according to a report by USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport. Two of the drowning victims at city beaches this year were African-American teens, including 16-year-old Tiara Coaxum of Jamaica, who drowned at Rockaway Beach last month.
“There is a cultural issue that is translating into a drowning epidemic,” said John Cruzat, the diversity specialist for USA Swimming. “Now, two to three generations of nonswimmers have an endemic fear of the water.”
Immigrant children are also more at risk of drowning.
“Many of these folks who are coming into the country today are from countries where traditionally they don’t swim,” said Shawn Slevin, who started the Swim Strong Foundation, a Queens-based program that allows low-income children to get into swimming, in 2006.
Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a lack of access to pools led to weak swimming skills in minority communities.
Make a Splash, started by USA Swimming, is a nationwide grassroots swimming program that aims to reduce youth drownings, especially in minorities. When the Make a Splash initiative comes to cities, it partners with centers that have pools and then gets kids swimming who could not afford to.
“The Make a Splash program becomes a conduit for our kids to become confident swimmers,” said Robert Nori of the American Red Cross in Nassau County.
“The time to teach swimming is when a child is 7, 8, 9, 10 years old instead of waiting,” said Slevin.
Another problem that people worry about for kids is making sure that they can swim in all types of water.
Riptides at Queens beaches are unusually strong this summer. “Coming to the open ocean is a whole different thing than swimming in the pool,” said Denise Shire, Taylor’s mother. “Because, underneath, there’s riptides and it’s dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.”
“You can’t say to a child, ‘you don’t know how to swim, so when you go to the beach don’t go in the water,’ “ said Nori.
“Learning how to swim should be as automatic as teaching your child to walk or not to talk to strangers.”