Thursday, August 5, 2010

Swimming for our lives

As a kid, did you spend your summers at the pool (or by the river or around a lake)? I sure did, and it was great. The first twelve years of my life were spent on an island, and my parents were sailors, so, clearly, water was a huge part of what we did. Later, when we moved to the states and became land locked, we always had some sort of access to a pool or lake and spent as much time as possible swimming and splashing, floating in tubes, hurling ourselves off the diving board and just generally carrying on. We had an abundance of water and we all knew how to swim in it.

Competitive swimming is a big thing where I live. My children did a brief stint on swim team, as did I as a child. It's a great way to keep kids busy, fit, and get free swimming lessons. As I drive to work in the morning, the sidewalks are full of kids in suits with towels headed for their obligatory laps.

Later in life, swimming came in handy as I spent more time sailing, kayaking, and eventually, triathloning. I'm no Mark Spitz (he was MY hero back in the day) but I can hold my own and crank out a mile straight without too much trouble. And I completely take it for granted.

When I turned on the news yesterday and read the story about the 9 children in Louisiana who drowned in a river while they were picnicking with their families, and who literally, disappeared under the water in front of their families eyes, my heart just broke. In fairness, people drown all the time. Asia seems to have its fair share of overcrowded ferry accidents where hundreds of people go down in one fell swoop. Toddlers wander away from campsites every summer and are inevitably pulled from the depths later in the day to the anguished wailing of their parents. Boats go down, surfers occasionally hit their heads and never resurface. A triathlete drowned just recently in Philadelphia. He went into the lake and just never came back out.

When I was a child, on the island, my mother organized a Girl Scout troop for me and my friends. At some point, she must have realized that most of the little girls I went to school with there could not swim. And so, because she is who she is, my mother organized swimming lessons for everyone. I cannot remember if she did all the teaching, I think not, because in my hazy memory there are other adults present. The experience culminated, however, in a boat trip for all of us, out to a smaller island where there was a beautiful beach, sandy shore and shallow water, where everyone practiced swimming together. I remember sitting on the side benches in a boat with my friends, everyone in life jackets laced up tightly to their chins, some excited, and some anxious or just plain terrified as we headed out to sea.

As with most things we learn in life, the fear we feel because we don't know how to do something is far more challenging to conquer than whatever the skill happens to be. Swimming is an easy thing to learn....especially in a pool, where you can touch and see the bottom and with a little help from a patient instructor. Access to this resource, a lack of desire and or lack of encouragement keeps many many people from ever learning even the simplest of dog paddling techniques.

Sometimes the drowning is inevitable. Even strong swimmers drown because the circumstances just dictate that is the way it is going to end. But how different the outcome might have been in Louisiana if everyone had had a few swimming lessons.

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