I'll never forget the first day I took my baby girl, Mari, to see the ocean. She was so tiny couldn't walk yet without my holding both her hands, but insisted on letting those sweet little twinkle toes sink into the sand. She was fascinated by it all, and scared, too so scared, indeed, that when we stood at the edge of the sand and the water rushed toward us, a warm trickle of baby nerves flowed right out of her Little Swimmers down her leg onto her toes into the sand. It was as if, even at a mere 10 months, she was yielding to the power of the ocean wide, vast, imposing. For Mari, the towel, further back way back on the sand was the place to be.
The water would have to wait.
But Nick and I knew Mari's relationship with water couldn't wait for long. We were living in the suburbs, right next door to a dear friend and neighbor who had a pool, and we often vacationed in places where water is revered. The girl needed to swim. And so swim, she did in classes at the local YMCA and at the local pool at first, and later on the beaches of Martha's Vineyard and Jamaica and Cape May and the Hamptons.
And when Mari fell in love with water, she fell hard.
These days, we have an entire pool of Chiles fish dipping in and out of swimming holes all across town; Mari swims like a shark, as does her little sister, Lila, who, too, took swim lessons starting at age three. Their big brother, Mazi, is a lifeguard at a local public pool. Oftentimes too often they are the only little brown children in the water.
Sadly, there is an explanation for this: According to a 2008 study by the USA Swimming Foundation, six out of 10 African-American children don't' know how to swim, nearly twice as many as their white counterparts, while 56 percent of Hispanic and Latino children are unable to swim. Why, you ask? Well, it's because we parents don't swim. Black and Latino children are six times more likely to be part of a family in which neither parent nor child can swim, and in those families, a whopping 91 percent of black children and 70 percent of Hispanic/Latino children will NOT learn.
What's worse is that those sobering statistics are leading to all-too-many of our brown babies becoming statistics. Indeed, African-American children drown at a rate almost three times higher than white children in similar age groups all because they don't have the skills they need to survive the water.
Oh, but there's hope, people, and it comes in the form of a 6' 5 (hottie) U.S. Olympic gold medalist who's passionate about using his fame to raise awareness on the issue and ensure more kids learn to swim particularly in urban communities. Just as pools across the nation open this weekend for the summer season, Cullen Jones, the freestyle sprint Olympian who is the first African-American to hold or share a world record in swimming, is promoting the USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash Initiative, which provides low- to no-cost life-saving swimming skills to kids, particularly those in urban communities.
Jones will travel to Houston, Indianapolis, Seattle, Kansas City, Denver, and Los Angeles to meet with community leaders, parents, and children to spread the message that the ability to swim is a life-and-death issue that needs to be addressed not now but right now.
I didn't learn how to swim to become an Olympic champion, Jones says. I learned how to swim, because when I was five years old, I almost drowned. Every summer these tragedies happen and we talk about how they could have been prevented; yet every year the statistics remain the same. I am committed to a real solution.
Jones, in conjunction with the USA Swimming Foundation and ConocoPhillips, will also encourage increasing funding for learn-to-swim initiatives across the country; he’ll be soliciting donations to the Make a Splash/Sponsor a Swim Lesson program, an online giving program that provides the public an opportunity to help fund free or low-cost swim lessons for kids who otherwise may not have the opportunity to learn.
Since its inception in 2007, more than 37,000 kids have gone through Make a Splash swimming lessons; currently, there are 68 providers giving free or low-cost water safety instruction across the country. For more information, or to donate or sponsor a swim lesson for a child in need, click HERE to check out Makeasplash.org.
And for goodness sake, get your kids some swim lessons. Even if you don’t want any parts of the water (trust me on this: I DO understand the significance of ruining a a fresh press and curl in pool water), your baby deserves this life-skill. It’s easy enough to find low-cost lessons at the local public pool; make it happen, save your child’s life. It’s as simple as that.