Swimming Towards Important Life Skills
It’s a scene straight out of a nightmare —one moment, you’re in your home, at the beach, on a boat, and then the next,you’re in the water — and you don’t know how to swim. However, one person’s bad dream is another person’s reality when hurricane-propelled waters flood a home, a rogue wave rises and hurtles towards the shore, or a misstep on a boat leads to a plunge over the side.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,drowning is the fifth most common cause of unintentional death in the United States. Although knowing how to swim greatly reduces the risk of accidental drownings, a sizable number of people never learn to swim. The percentage of non-swimmers is higher among poor and working-class Americans, likely because they have neither the finances nor the time to learn.
Turning non-swimmers into swimmers became Shawn Slevin’s mission when she started the Swim Strong Foundation in 2009. She had already been doing that for 40 years as coach of a competitive community age-group swim team at St. Sebastian’s in Woodside, Queens, but having worked with over 8,000 children, including multiple generations, Slevin wanted to bring the vital survival skill of swimming to even more people. She used her own money to start the foundation, but later began holding fundraisers to get broader support.
“As a volunteer swim coach and director of a community based program, I saw the real benefits of having children involved in swimming activities,” Slevin says. “Of course, there are the safety issues, as here in the U.S.,10 people on average die per day due to drowning. It’s the second largest cause of death for children 14 and younger, with kids of color drowning three times more than their Caucasian peers.” Also according to Slevin, drowning is the second largest cause of death globally for children ages 1 to14.
The Swim Strong Foundation currently teaches children to swim on a first-come, first-served basis in two locations in Brooklyn and two in Queens. The experienced coach has designed instruction so the kids really learn. “We keep our Learn to Swim as semi-private lessons, with no more than three to five students to an instructor,” explains Slevin, “so our class size is intentionally managed to give the students the most interactive experience possible.”
Slevin developed a set curriculum for the Swim Strong students. “Once the student has good basic skills and can swim 25 yards/meters of freestyle as well as the back stroke, we encourage the children to learn the other two competitive strokes, the breaststroke and the butterfly, starts, and turns.” Since the goal is to make the students life-long swimmers, Slevin says that learning these skills will allow them “to experience competition and be ready to join other community-based or U.S. swim teams.”
The foundation has already seen impressive results. According to Slevin, 59 Swim Strong graduates have joined community-based swim teams, 19 are members of U.S. Swim Clubs, 15 students are on their high school teams, seven swim for college teams, and two joined a U.S.Diving team. Students educated by Swim Strong take the skills they learn into the community (six graduates are now coaching other community-based swim teams), and into their careers. Thirty-three alumniare certified as lifeguards, two enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard because they were able to pass the required swim test, one enlisted in the U.S. Navy, and one graduate is now a commercial diver.
Though her children’s programs are always full of eager students, Slevin knows there’s a need for even more swim education. Therefore, Swim Strong is now also instructing adults. “In the course of my work, I spoke with many parents who themselves did not know how to swim,” Slevin says. “There were just too many instances of parents keeping children out of the water because they were kept out of the water themselves.”
Despite its very visible successes, Swim Strong is facing challenges as it strives to expand, including finding affordable and available pool space to rent in Manhattan. Then there’s the matter of raising money. “To both sustain our programs and grow,” says Slevin,“we will need to modify our model to include some paid staff to manage the programs by location and be a trainer for our instructors, in order to ensure that our specific methodology is consistently applied.”
After the devastation of Superstorm Sandy, Slevin set a “very ambitious” annual goal for the Swim Strong Foundation: provide 350 scholarships and give 1,000 people swim lessons (prior to the storm, 700 people had learned to swim, 135 funded by scholarships). That goal will require $44,000.00, so Slevin is actively fundraising to keep her students and her ambitions from drowning. For more information on ways to support Swim Strong’s efforts, Slevin encourages visits to the foundation’s website,http://swimstrongfoundation.org.
By Michael Griffin