published Monday, July 22nd, 2013

You're never too old to learn how to swim

Jason Howard swims with his daughter, Zoe, 7, at the Downtown YMCA. In addition to swimming several times each week at the YMCA and Sports Barn, Howard also does open-water swims every Wednesday in the Tennessee River.
Jason Howard swims with his daughter, Zoe, 7, at the Downtown YMCA. In addition to swimming several times each week at the YMCA and Sports Barn, Howard also does open-water swims every Wednesday in the Tennessee River.
Photo by Tim Barber.

DROWNINGS BY THE NUMBERS

• In nearly 9 out of 10 child-drowning deaths, a parent or caregiver claimed to be watching the child.

• An average of 9 people drown every day in the United States.

• For each death caused by drowning, there are 1 to 4 non-fatal submersion accidents serious enough for the victim to be hospitalized.

• Drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental injury-related death among children ages 1 to 14.

• Drowning is the leading cause of accidental injury-related death among children ages 1 to 4.

• Among children ages 1 to 4 years, most drownings occur in residential swimming pools. More than half of drownings among infants (under age 1) occur in bathtubs, buckets or toilets.

• Portable pools make up 11 percent of all pool drownings for children under age 5.

• Non-fatal drownings can result in brain damage that may result in long-term disabilities including memory problems, learning disabilities and permanent loss of basic functioning.

• Nineteen percent of child drowning fatalities take place in public pools with certified lifeguards on duty.

• Roughly 5,000 children 14 and under go to the hospital because of accidental drowning-related incidents each year; 15 percent (750 children) die and about 20 percent (1,000 children per year) suffer from permanent neurological disability.

• Seventy-seven percent of those involved in a home-drowning accident had only been missing for five minutes or less when found in the swimming pool; 70 percent weren't expected to be in or near the pool at that time.

• Participation in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent among children ages 1-4.

Source: Steve Newman, owner of Choo Choo Diving & Aquatic Center

Want to learn?

Area YMCA locations offer adult swim lessons that are open to both members and nonmembers. Visit http://ymcachattanooga.org for locations.

Until Jason Howard was 24 years old, he relied on the simplest stroke to stay afloat when he went swimming -- the dog paddle.

Fourteen years later, he's an aggressive competitive swimmer, winning prestigious open-water races, an endurance sport that takes place in lakes, rivers and oceans.

Howard, also a competitive mountain biker, says his interest in learning proper swimming strokes sparked when he and his wife, Gina Howard, began training for their first triathlon, a competition whose highest levels consist of running a 26-mile marathon, cycling for about 100 miles and swimming for about a mile -- one right after the other.

"I would have rather been riding my bike, but I had no idea how many benefits swimming could have for me," says Howard. "I realized that I could do triathlons and be able to hold my own. I still wasn't taking swimming real serious at the time, but using it more as cross training for cycling.

"I'm very proud to have made the transition from being a national title holder in mountain biking to open-water swimming," says Howard, who has competed in triathlons, the Chattanooga Rat Race swimming competitions in the Tennessee River and Swim the Suck, an annual 10-mile Tennessee River open-water contest that attracts competitors from across the U.S. and other countries.

"It was great because I dropped cycling and concentrated on swimming for one full year just to see what I could do. During that year, I really fell in love with the water and the swimmers."

In one way, Howard is unusual because he became a winning competitive swimmer even though he didn't start actual swimming until he was in his 20s. Most competitive swimmers begin as young children and train and compete continuously for years.

Yet in another way, he's not unusual at all -- an adult with little or no swimming skills. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 37 percent of adults in America can't swim 24 yards, the length of a typical recreation-center pool. Adults, including those who can swim, make up more than 70 percent of drowning deaths in America each year.

Whether it's a fear of water or that they're too embarrassed to take swimming lessons, swimming professionals emphasize that it's never too late to learn to swim.

Working through fear

June Baugham, manager of Choo Choo Diving & Aquatic Center in Chattanooga, says the reason many adults never learn to swim is because they were taught to fear the water by their parents, who also were afraid of swimming.

She recently had a 68-year-old student who learned to swim and snorkel so she could participate in the water activities when she vacationed with her family.

"She had a 6-year-old granddaughter who was taking snorkeling classes, so she decided she wanted to learn, too. She took swimming and snorkeling classes unbeknownst to her family so that she could surprise them when they went on vacation together."

At first, though, the woman was afraid to put her face in the water, Baugham says.

"I told her to just be a kid again and act like a mermaid. Before long, she was having fun," Baugham says.

Former Chattanooga swim coach Mike Smotherman, who now teaches and coaches swimming in Houston, says non-swimming adults should not give up hope of learning to swim.

"They need to find their comfort zone and find someone willing to work with them," he says.

Many swim teachers are often willing to offer one-on-one lessons to adults, he says, so "sometimes finding the right environment where they feel at ease would be a great place to start."

Still, learning to swim is not an option for some adults.

"I have no desire to learn," says Christal Crawford, 43, of Chattanooga. "I have a great fear of being underwater. I don't even like to put my face under the water in the shower."

However, the fear of being underwater doesn't deter her from being in the water.

"I get in pools, go on water rides, get in the ocean, and go on boats," she says. "I make sure everyone I am with knows of my aversion to being underwater. I will wear a life jacket if I am on a boat. I sit at the edge of the ocean mostly and will walk in about to my waist. I actually attempted to water ski once -- never again."

Despite offers from her friends to teach her to swim and even though she wants to learn, she refuses.

"I see how much fun people have [in the water]. I also imagine snorkeling and scuba diving would be so beautiful," she says.

The benefits

Smotherman says the benefits of swimming include not only being able to enjoy the water but also having the ability to protect yourself from drowning. It's also a great way to stay in shape, he says.

"It's fun and great exercise without putting too much stress on the body, and you can swim when you're 100 years old," Smotherman says.

Howard adds that swimming can make it simpler to participate in many sports and other activities.

"The transition to other sports is much easier due to swimming," he says. "It teaches you how to breathe at different exertions levels. I found that swimming helps with yoga as well."

But learning to respect the water may be the most important result, he says.

"You are relaxed in the water, and you can think through adverse situations," Howard says. "For example, if you were in the ocean swimming and a current took you out from the beach, you would be able to relax and be able to swim along the shore until you got out of the current. You expend a ton of energy when you freak out and you let the water win."

Baugham says that's one of the reasons her mother made sure all her children learned to swim when they were young.

"I can't remember a time I didn't know how to swim. My mom was a swim instructor, and it was important that we [her children] were comfortable in the water," she says. "She wanted us to be able to protect ourselves from drowning, and she knew that formal swim lessons would help."

Start young

Howard says it has been important to him that his 7-year-old daughter, Zoe, is a swimmer. She started lessons at 3.

"Swimming means a lot to her because she can follow my path," he says. "She loves to learn new strokes and loves to practice with me. She likes it when I watch her swim, and she likes to watch me swim."

Howard says Zoe, who swam in the summer swim league with the Signal Mountain Giants, has "fallen in love" with the sport of swimming. "She plans to continue year-round swimming at Baylor."

Dan Flack, Baylor School swim coach, says people ideally should learn to swim as children, preferably by the age of 8.

"[It's] much more difficult to learn as an adult," he says. "As a kid, you are much more acceptable of the water and what it can do for you. Younger kids are much more flexible."

However, that doesn't mean adults shouldn't try, he says.

"[I] taught many students at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill because to graduate, a student had to pass a swimming test -- very hard because many of the folks simply sunk," he says.

Contact staff writer Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/karennazorhill. Subscribe to her posts on Facebook at www.facebook.com/karennazorhill.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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