My father-in-law had been fishing from rowboats without incident since early childhood. But in August 1970, at age 66, alone on a Minnesota lake, he apparently fell out of the boat and drowned. He couldn’t swim a stroke, yet never wore a life jacket.
I checked the statistics at the time: In a state with more than 11,000 lakes of 10 acres or more, plus 8,100 fishable rivers, half the adult population did not know how to swim.
Things are somewhat better today, but not enough. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 37 percent of adults cannot swim the length of a 25-yard pool, meaning they probably could not make it to shore if they got into trouble in a natural body of water.
You might think children are the most vulnerable to drowning. Not so. While drowning has declined overall from 1999 to 2010, according to new data from the CDC, children and young adults account for the drop. Among adults ages 45 to 84, drownings increased nearly 10 percent.
More than 70 percent of those who drown each year in the United States are adults, and the percentage of drownings in lakes, rivers and oceans rises with age. Nearly 80 percent of drowning victims are boys or men.
Fear of the water keeps many adults from learning to swim. And they may pass this reluctance on to their children, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, said Christopher Pompi, a civil engineer in Adams, Mass. As a young adult, Pompi spent time on the Jersey Shore, but he could not join his friends in the water because he didn’t know how to swim.
With the help of the Swimming Saves Lives Foundation, the charitable arm of U.S. Masters Swimming, Pompi finally overcame his fear at age 38 and learned to swim. He had realized that if anything happened to his son in the water, he would have been unable to help.
He took the plunge under the remarkable tutelage of Bill Meier, the aquatics director at Bard College at Simon’s Rock and a swim coach who teaches volunteer instructors how to turn land-huggers into competent swimmers seemingly in no time.
“In eight to 10 lessons I was swimming in the deep end,” Pompi told me. “In six months, I went from not being able to do 10 bobs in the water to swimming like I was a young kid. Bill brought me to the point where I felt safe in the water and competent to help if anything happened.”
Now 50, Pompi said he feels secure enough to have installed a pool at home where he and his three children can enjoy the water together.
“If you’re not a capable swimmer, you need to become one,” he said. “You never know when you’ll need it.”
Of course, swimming is also a great fitness activity that one can pursue into the ninth decade or beyond. It is gentle on the joints and can also be therapeutic.
For the past eight months, I’ve been doing the backstroke for half of my daily 40-minute swim to stabilize what had been progressive scoliosis. But an elderly friend with sciatica who was told by her doctor that swimming was the best thing for her back had to admit that she didn’t know how.
Swimming can also help people maintain fitness when injuries prevent them from pursuing their usual physical activities. I first started swimming regularly year-round in my 30s when I injured my back and was unable to run, cycle or play tennis.
The Swimming Saves Lives Foundation awards grants, financed by membership fees and donations, to more than 2,000 local programs across the country to provide free or low-cost swimming lessons for adults.
“The goal is to enable adults to swim at least two lengths of a pool with confidence and, hopefully, instill a desire to continue swimming,” said Rob Butcher, executive director of U.S. Masters Swimming.
Adults who can’t swim are often embarrassed to say so and thus may be reluctant to sign up for a course. But think of how good it would feel to master a skill that has long eluded you.
Meier recalls a 75-year-old woman who thought she’d never be able to swim.
“In just half an hour, the instructor had her doing laps and she was ecstatic,” he said. “It’s almost a miracle to see how fast people can go from being afraid of the water to be able to swim laps.”
Meier travels widely to teach volunteers among the organization’s 60,000 members how to instruct adults, regardless of their level of competence and confidence in the water. He has prepared an 11-page manual to help instructors teach all levels of students, from those too afraid to get out of the car in the pool parking lot to those who can swim but need to improve their strokes.
See a related story and find places to learn to swim in WNY at blogs.buffalonews.com/refresh