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Swim for Your Life — and Health

The numbers are crazy: Seventy percent of African Americans don’t know how to swim. There are nine drownings each day, and six of those are minorities. According to the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, drowning is the fifth-leading cause of unintentional injury deaths in the United States. Among children, it is the second-leading cause of accidental death.

These statistics, and a love for the sport, drove Agnes Davis, in 2009, to start swim swim swim I Say. And she’s on a mission to empower families, students and adults on the fundamentals of swimming.

Biking, running and walking are great sources of physical fitness. During his term in office, for U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy unveiled a call to action, encouraging walking and walkable communities with his Step It Up initiative. But far too few of us think about taking a dip in the pool for our morning workout. Done properly, swimming is an excellent source of aerobic activity and it’s accessible to people of all ages and abilities.

“It is one of the best exercises we can take from infancy up until the last days of our eyes being open,” Davis said. “It’s one of the few exercises that doesn’t put stress on our joints. It keeps you limber, it works your heart. It’s been shown to lower instances of obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol. Plus, it helps with mobility.”

So why do so few of us do it? Davis said it’s three-fold. Many of us tend to think of swimming as a luxury, not a life-saving skill. We also don’t see many black folks doing the breaststroke the way we see faces like our own on the basketball court and the football field. And it’s generational.

“A lot of the older generation used to say, ‘Stay away from the water because I can’t save you,’” Davis said. “Back in the day, in certain areas it was blacks-only pools, or they could only swim the last day [of the season], when they were draining the pools.”

But Davis has been seeing this change. “The numbers are going to get better,” she said. She sees parents that don’t know how to swim enrolling their children in lessons. “They’re making them learn how to swim. Their mindset is changing, and thank God for that,” she said. “But we’re nowhere near where we need to be. If you have nine drownings a day and six of them are minorities, we’re still not at the right point.”

Davis offered these water safety tips:

  1. Don’t swim where there’s not a lifeguard.
  2. Have a buddy system. Always swim with someone.
  3. Never dive into water where you can’t see the bottom. “Unfortunately, that leads to a lot of neck and brain injuries,” she said. “People can’t see how shallow the water is.”
  4. Take swimming lessons. “It’s a life-saving skill. When they are extremely young—like 6 months of so—keep their faces wet; it helps them not be afraid of water. Start swimming lessons as soon as possible.” (Davis’ own mother enrolled her when she was 2 years old because she “kept trying to jump in the deep end.”)
  5. Start at any age. “You’re never too late to learn how to swim,” Davis said. “You just have to find the right program.”


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