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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states the sad fact that more than 3,500 people drown each year in the U.S, making drowning the leading cause of death in children 1 – 4 years old. Even more sad, minorities drown at a rate three times higher than their peers.

Diversity is directly linked to the opportunity to be water safe. As we are well aware, aquatics suffers from lack of diversity, enforcing a system where the access to learning how to swim and gain water competency are not the same for everyone.

Between 1999-2010, the fatal unintentional drowning rate for African Americans was significantly higher than that of whites across all ages. The disparity is widest among children 5-18 years old and is most pronounced in swimming pools. African American children 5-19 drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than those of whites. This disparity is greatest among those 11-12 years in which African Americans drown in swimming pools at rates 10 times those of whites.(1)

Factors such as access to swimming pools, the desire or lack of desire to learn how to swim, and choosing water-related recreational activities may contribute to the racial differences in drowning rates. Available rates are based on population, not on participation. If rates could be determined by actual participation in water-related activities, the disparity in minorities’ drowning rates compared to whites would be much greater.(2)

Many organizations and advocates are striving to bring swimming to minority communities and thus reduce the incidence of drowning among them. Here are a few that you can support:

Diversity In Aquatics 

The drowning and participation gaps in aquatics mirror the disparities we find in public health and education, often ignoring the ongoing historical issues of race, socioeconomic circumstances, and cultural stereotyping. Therefore, a revamped focus is needed to address and help curve the current gaps found in aquatics.

Founded by Dr. Shaun Anderson and Jayson Jackson in 2010, Diversity In Aquatics is an organization built to develop a network to help save lives by empowering communities to have equitable access to quality aquatic opportunities. They work to address historical policies and practices that impact resource allocation and access to public spaces to understand present-day aquatic disparities.

Afroswimmers

AfroSwimmers is a swim movement that offers lessons and aquatic wellness services for people of color, founded by swim coach and aquatic healer Noelle Singleton.

AfroSwimmers boasts a facility in Atlanta where programs — including competitive coaching, aquatic therapy, and private swimming lessons — are offered to help break down barriers between the Black community and swimming.

Black People Will Swim

Black People Will Swim’s sole mission is plain and simple: it’s smashing the stereotype that Black people don’t swim. Their end game is to make a difference in the world of aquatics.

They aim to do this through a number of ways with their acronym F.A.C.E. encouraging their community to FACE their fears.

Swim Uphill

Founded by paralympic swimmer Jamal Hill, this organization has made it its mission to take justice against senseless drownings by promoting water safety competency through the Swim Uphill method in underserved communities around the globe.

Black Kids Swim

Black Kids Swim is a 501c3 organization based in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Their mission is to increase Black participation in the sport of competitive swimming. They also offer their consultancy services to aquatic facilities that wish to include a diverse group of adults and/or children to their programs.

The Josh Project

The Josh Project is a drowning prevention agency dedicated to water safety training and education. Their mission is to build basic swimming skills and knowledge of water safety to prevent drowning.

SwemKids

SwemKids is nonprofit school-based program that teaches children introductory swimming lessons and water safety skills as a part of their school’s curriculum. This model ensures that children are exposed to the water early and gain important life-saving skills to make sure they are safe while having fun!

Black Swimming Association

The Black Swimming Association (BSA) is a non-profit organisation set up to promote education among the Black community as well as other ethnic minority communities on water safety and drowning prevention measures.

They strive to ensure that the issues that preclude these communities from engaging in aquatics are researched, understood and  adequately addressed to promote inclusion and change.

  1. Gilchrist J, Parker EM. Racial/ethnic disparities in fatal unintentional drowning among persons aged ≤29 years—United States, 1999–2010. MMWR 2014;63:421–6.
  1. Branche CM, Dellinger AM, Sleet DA, Gilchrist J, Olson SJ. Unintentional injuries: the burden, risks and preventive strategies to address diversity. In: Livingston IL, editor.  Praeger handbook of Black American health (2nd edition): Policies and issues behind disparities in health. Westport (CT): Praeger Publishers; 2004. p. 317-27.

Water Safety USA, a consortium of national nonprofit and governmental organizations focused on drowning prevention, has announced its water safety message for 2020. “#BeBuoyant: Life Jackets Save Lives.” A properly fit life jacket is a very effective life-saving strategy in the quest to reduce the number of fatal drowning incidents in the country.

Who should wear a life jacket?

  • Anyone participating in any boating, paddling or towed water sport regardless of swimming ability.
  • Inexperienced or non-swimmers in pool or open water situations when other layers of protection are limited.
  • Preschool children—those about 5 years and younger—who are not protected by touch supervision either in or near the water. Touch supervision means being within an arm’s reach of the child(ren) at all times.


In addition, it is recommended that everyone who is in or around open water wear a life jacket as an extra layer of protection, especially outside of a lifeguarded area.

Anyone participating in any boating, paddling or towed water sports regardless of swimming ability.
​Wearing a U.S. Coast Guard-approved properly fitted life jacket is the simplest life-saving strategy for recreational boating, paddling or towed water sports.

According to U.S. Coast Guard Recreational Boating Statistics in 2018 there were 4,145 reported accidents, 2,511 reported injuries, and 633 deaths on our nation’s waterways. A majority of those deaths (77%) were due to drowning and 84% of those were not wearing a life jacket. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers statistics show that for the last ten years most of the water-related fatalities that occurred at their lake and river projects were men (87%) age 18 and older (86%) and 87% were not wearing a life jacket.

Many people who participate in boating or a boating activity including fishing, hunting, paddling and towed water sports generally don’t think they will drown because they know how to swim, don’t plan on getting in the water, or it is a nice calm day so nothing is going to happen. Alcohol can impair one’s judgment and abilities in and around water. While enjoying your favorite boating activity please keep in mind that there is always a risk of drowning so expect the unexpected and prepare for it by wearing a properly fitted life jacket.

Inexperienced or non-swimmers in pool or open water situations when other layers of protection are limited.
Most people associate life jackets with boating, but they can also help provide support for inexperienced and non-swimmers in or around water, including open water, such as lakes, oceans, ponds, reservoirs and rivers, as well as controlled environments, such as a pool, waterpark or lifeguarded beach. Almost half of 10 to 17-year old’s who fatally drowned could swim according to available information on swimming in the National Child Death Case Reporting System for 2005-2014.

Inexperienced or non-swimmers, particularly children, are at risk in these settings when supervision lapses or the venue is very crowded. Life jackets provide an additional layer of protection in these situations.

Preschool children—those about 5 years and younger—who are not protected by touch supervision; Touch supervision means staying within an arm’s reach of the child(ren) at all times. An analysis of child death review data found that supervision was missing almost half of the time that a child fatally drowned in a pool.

Swimming aids and water toys, such as water wings, and inflatable water wings and rings, are toys. They may provide some buoyancy in the water, but they do not prevent drowning.

Parents should remain attentive even if their children are skilled at swimming and comfortable in the water. Even though a child has become comfortable in the water, and with wearing a life jacket, constant supervision is still needed when they are in or around the water. Young children do not have the developmental maturity to reliably or consistently follow directions or safe practices, to have judgment or the ability to recognize risks.

Everyone needs to learn how to swim without a life jacket. Can’t swim? Enroll yourself and your children in swim lessons/water orientation classes to experience being in the water without a life jacket. Continue the journey of learning to swim and regularly getting in a pool with your children without life jackets.


In addition, it is recommended that everyone who is in or around open water wear a life jacket as an extra layer of protection, especially outside of a lifeguarded area.
While drowning in swimming pools gets significant attention, the fact is that more Americans fatally drown in open water. More than half of fatal and nonfatal drownings among teens and young adults ages 15 and older (57% each) occur in natural water settings.

There is also an alarming difference in the number of fatal drownings in open water by gender, with males, and particularly teens and young adult males, at greatest risk. (84% of open water drownings in children ages 0-19 occurring in males, with males 10 to 14 years old 15.4 times the risk compared to females).

​Adults are also at risk. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has found that the majority of water-related fatalities that occurred at USACE lake and river projects nationwide were people age 18 or older (86%), male (87%), not wearing a life jacket (87%), and associated with swimming (54%).

One factor contributing to fatal drownings in open water may be the expectation that because an individual is able to swim in a pool, he/she will be safe in open water. However, open water, which includes lakes, oceans, ponds, reservoirs and rivers, has hidden hazards that can increase the risk of drowning. These include sudden drop-offs, dangerous currents, vegetation and rocks, colder temperatures, difficult-to-judge distances, rougher water including waves, limited visibility and more.

These environmental differences from the pool setting make it important for people who want to swim, wade, or just play in open water to find designated areas for swimming. If swimming outside of a designated area or in an area without lifeguards, people should always wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved properly fitted life jacket appropriate for their weight and water activity.

Originally published on Water Safety USA.

finding a water safety program blog cover

Sarah Christianson is a wife, mother, RN, model and water safety advocate. The views expressed in this article are entirely her own and do not represent the opinions of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance.

The smile on her face quickly faded and soon tears started to surface with a look of fear accompanied by the silent plead for me to come save her. This is what no parent wants to watch unfold. Being torn from wanting to jump into full mommy mode and whisk your daughter away from her fear or the side of making her stick with the swim class that she has quickly grown to hate.

My daughter Aubrey, 5 years old, had just started weekly swim lessons at one of our local gyms. We happen to luck out with her being the only kiddo to sign up for her time slot. Hello private lessons without the price tag (mom win)! She loved every moment of them, the 1:1 attention, the constant praise and reinforcement from her instructor. Each end to the lesson she would have the biggest smile on her face and ask how many days until next week’s lesson. I couldn’t be happier! I mean, how could I not be jumping for joy to see my daughter be excited to learn one of the most important skills in life?! Little did I know that the joy would be short lived.

On week three the instructor informed me that a set of siblings would be joining the class. They had been signed up in the wrong class and now moved to Aubrey’s class. She let Aubrey and myself know that they were “deathly afraid of water” and would need lots of help . I remember her smiling at Aubrey, saying “but I know you can help me and show them how brave we can be in the water.” The mommy red flag was starting to wave like the flag at the beginning of a Nascar race. It wasn’t my daughter’s job to show them the ropes, and if they needed that much attention what would happen to Aubrey during the class? So many questions swirled, but only time would tell.

The following week we headed into swim lessons and quickly spotted the new additions to her class. Both were crying, one more than the other, and neither wanting to go anywhere near the pool. As I sat and watched the instructor try to get them into the water I glanced over at Aubrey who was standing in the water wide eyed with a look of “what is happening?” written clearly across her face. The majority of the class was spent trying to help the new kiddos stop crying and Aubrey looking back at me with a look of confusion as her turns were shortened. I wondered how long this would continue. After class I praised Aubrey for trying her hardest and for showing the kiddos how fun being in swim lessons could be. She was a little quieter than usual, but I didn’t want any extra focus or conversation on the fear of the others or how she didn’t get as much attention. 

Before we knew it the week had passed and we were back for the next lesson. This is when everything fully flipped. We not only were told we had a new instructor, but the new kiddos were almost double the tears and fears then last week. Aubrey’s smiles faded before the whole group even got into the water. This is when the facial pleads for help surfaced and the tears started to arise. Aubrey would motion that she needed to go to the bathroom and once in the bathroom she would stall, fully knowing she was missing out in class. The class would eventually end and she cried and cried, begging me not to make her go back, that she never wanted to go in the water again.

I’m a strong believer that every child, no matter the age, needs to learn to float and swim! It’s essential in life! So what was I supposed to do for my daughter? There were other swim facilities in town, but I had heard similar stories of large kid to instructor ratios and stories of moms that had to jump into the class to grab their child because the instructor wasn’t watching and the child was treading water. I didn’t feel qualified to teach my daughter to float and swim, because what did I know of all the proper techniques? I came from the days of your parents throwing you in the local pool and just telling you to paddle like a dog and figure it out. I wanted something different, something better for my daughter.

It truly was a miracle that the same day as the last swim lesson someone told me about the Float 4 Life National Training Center right here in Lincoln. I immediately jumped on social media and stalked their page and then their website. From the 1:1 ratios and the fact that they have the Josh the Otter Water Safety and Awareness Program had me ready to make an appointment. After meeting with staff at Float 4 Life I realized within minutes this is were Aubrey needed to be! This is where we would reverse the fear and see joy again!

There’s something to be said about watching your child overcome fear and grow with excitement in what they are doing. I’m so grateful that I listened to my mothers intuition and sought out a different alternative to where we were at. I believe that we always have the opportunity to change our paths in life, no matter the journey we are on, and this was exactly what we did for our daughter! We chose to not settle and find something better for her! This is why it’s so important for me to spread the word about not settling for mediocre and demand the best when it comes to our kids and learning this life skill! 

The relief I feel knowing my daughter is getting amazing instructions and no longer has the paralyzing fear of water means the world to me! I already have several friends asking questions and making appointments to have their kiddos come to Float 4 Life, because they’ve seen the difference and thought they just had to tough it out. If my journey with Aubrey helps at least one child have a better experience with learning to swim then that means that’s one more child that we prevent from drowning!  I hope I can help educate more parents about the importance of water safety and what to look for before enrolling in water safety training.

Sarah Christianson

@always_be_unstoppable