Accidental drowning is a leading cause of death for Black youth. Most conversations about Black youth’s lack of swimming skills begin and end with the assumption that their parents are to blame. There are plenty of swimming pools in the St. Louis region, so if youth don’t know how to swim, it must be because their parents didn’t find it important to teach them.
In reality, it is not unusual for children who cannot swim to also have parents who cannot swim; it is a conundrum that does not exist in a vacuum. There is a more sinister reason that Black youths, and the Black community as a whole, are often unfamiliar with swimming as a skill and recreational activity.
There is a long history of Black people being kept out of otherwise public pools and beaches. The legacy of systemic racism and social inequities, such as segregated beaches and swimming pools, have had lasting impacts on Black people.
Here, in our beloved City of St. Louis, segregation of public pools is no unfamiliar concept. One of the most infamous stories is that of the Fairground Park pool. It was only 71 years ago when more than 30 Black youth arrived to swim in the newly integrated pool, only to be met by a mob of angry white St. Louisans who committed acts of violence in response to the Black youth’s presence.
Across the country Black people were largely and systematically denied access to public waters, and the consequences of such racial discrimination is still disproportionately impacting Black lives today, resulting in swimming never becoming a part of Black recreational culture.
Swimming is a valuable, life-saving lifetime skill, yet 64% of Black youth have no or low ability to swim. In addition to generational traumas and fear of drowning, there are often cost barriers that render the opportunity to learn to swim an impossibility for many families. These are hard truths that the non-profit organization University City Swim Club (UCSC), which offers swim teams for youth and adults, is grappling with. Just before the nation faced one of the most pivotal civil rights movements of our time, UCSC had been undergoing transformation to align its values to the needs of the community it serves and to do its part to address racial disparities by teaching more Black youth how to swim.
In partnership with the University City School District, UCSC plans to roll out programming in the months to come to offer swimming lessons that explicitly address historical trauma and sensitively guide Black swimmers to become safer in the water and to see themselves as swimmers – whether competitive or recreational – in this historically white sport. The new programming is tailored to all ages and will consist of outreach and member recruitment of Black families, water safety education, swim lessons, and opportunities to grow as strong swimmers in UCSC’s competitive swim team.
With many pools closed or inaccessible this summer, rivers and lakes are becoming popular choices. Swimming in this so-called open water poses different risks than swimming in a pool, making water safety education even more critical this summer. Black children are twice as likely as white children to drown in open water, and research shows that for every fatal child drowning, nearly seven children are seen in the emergency room for a non-fatal (though terribly frightening and traumatic) drowning incident. And these figures don’t include those who are rescued and not taken to the emergency room.
Given racial disparities in swimming knowledge and drowning rates, the leadership of UCSC is particularly concerned about poor outcomes in the broader University City community and throughout our region.
How to stay safe in the water
Be prepared and plan head
Learn about the location where you are going to swim beforehand.
Is there a lifeguard present? It is discouraged to swim in an area that does not have a lifeguard. If there is no lifeguard, designate an adult to watch the water.
If open water, is there a designated swimming area? Is there a designated boating area?
Know how deep the water is. Consider setting parameters, such as non-swimmers entering the water where it is no deeper than chest-deep.
Be aware of the weather. It is unsafe to swim in a thunderstorm. Wait at least 30 minutes after the last sound of thunder is heard before resuming activity in the water.
Bring the right equipment, at least a first aid kit and a cell phone in case of an emergency.
If you have access to a life jacket, non-swimmers should use one. It is important that they are the appropriate size. A small child should not wear a life jacket intended for an older child or an adult, as this could put them at more risk.
If you do not have access to a life jacket, bring a flotation device that can be thrown to someone in an emergency.
Important! Water wings, life jackets, and inflatable toys are not adequate substitutes for adult supervision.
When you arrive
Look to see if the area is safe.
Check water conditions before entering. Even if it is a familiar spot, it is possible that something might have changed that could be dangerous.
Remind everyone about how to be safe in and around the water before your trip to the pool or swimming spot and again upon arrival.
Non-swimmers and young swimmers should know that if they see someone who needs help, they should reach out with or throw a flotation device and call for help, but should not enter the water.
If you get in trouble, stay calm.
Do not go in an area where the lifeguard / assigned adult is unable to see you.
If the water is murky, do not go underwater. If you get into trouble, it is difficult for someone to see if you need help.
If you become tired, stop swimming. It is not safe to swim if you are tired.
If you have a cramp, stop the activity, change position, try to float until the muscle is relaxed.
Do not hold your breath or participate in breathing competitions. This is very dangerous.
Set specific swimming rules for each individual in a family or group based on swimming ability. For example, inexperienced swimmers should stay in water less than chest deep.
Do not push people under the water.
Do not enter the water head-first in open water.
In an emergency
Call 911 immediately if someone is unconscious, has experienced a head, neck or spinal injury, or is profusely bleeding.
Brittany Ferrell, MPH, RN, is a public health scholar, board member at University City Swim Club, and Ph.D. student at Goldfarb School of Nursing.