Though the drowning rate for whites declines sharply after age 15, large numbers of blacks drown well into adulthood. That, not surprisingly, is almost entirely the result of their never having learned to swim. According to a 2010 USA Swimming survey of more than 2,000 children across the country, nearly 70% of black youngsters between the ages of six and 16 have "low or no" swimming skills—almost twice the figure for whites. (The nonswimming rate for Hispanic children is also alarming: 58%.) As a result, black children (age range: five to 14) are almost three times as likely to die from drowning as white kids. Black boys—who drown at twice the rate of African-American girls—are most at risk.
The obvious way to reverse this trend is to teach kids how to swim. USA Swimming estimates that the average beginners program costs about $100 for 16 lessons, the minimum number necessary to ensure measurable progress. Though even that cost can be prohibitive for low-income families, the return on investment is huge. At worst, kids learn how to save their own lives. At best, they get hooked on a sport they can enjoy for years.
"Anybody who's involved in inner cities has a pretty good idea what happens when kids don't have activities," says USA Swimming president Jim Wood, who has coached in northern New Jersey for the past 33 years. "If they get involved in swimming and enjoy it, they get involved beyond that. They take advanced swimming. They take lifeguarding classes. And then all sorts of lights go on as to [other ways] they can succeed."
Since taking the helm at USA Swimming in 2006, Wood has made minorities' water safety a priority. In 2007 he began Make a Splash, a nonprofit program that helps underwrite free or low-cost swim programs in inner cities through partnerships with groups such as the YMCA and the Red Cross. Corporate sponsorships have largely funded the $100,000 in grants that Make a Splash is distributing nationally this year, but USA Swimming hopes that Uncle Sam will eventually become the initiative's biggest benefactor.
In May the government allotted $400,000 for a federal pilot program this fall in northern New Jersey, thanks to the success of earlier initiatives in Atlanta and Houston—where USA Swimming has provided lessons to a combined total of more than 12,800 kids—and the lobbying efforts of Wood and Jones. They went to Congress again in March to ask for $450,000 to start a program in Chicago (which is still in the developmental stages) and coaxed lawmakers into submitting a line-item request for a $5 million increase in the CDC's budget for drowning prevention (which awaits congressional approval). If President Obama signs off on the latter, Make a Splash will team with the CDC to push for more programs nationwide.
That would help fulfill a dream of Rep. Albio Sires (D., N.J.), who has led the Make a Splash effort in Congress. Sires worked as a recreation counselor in West New York, N.J., in the late 1960s, and one of his former campers—who had never learned to swim—drowned at the age of 17 on an outing to nearby Harriman State Park in May 1975. "If there had been [swimming] lessons, maybe he would not have drowned," says Sires.
In his March visit to Capitol Hill, Jones, wearing a dark-blue suit, rimless glasses and a pair of diamond earrings, joined 11 USA Swimming officials and associates for a 10-hour lobbying tour that included scheduled visits with six lawmakers. Without fail, every representative or staffer with whom he met asked to see Jones's gold medal.
The ribbon holding the medal is frayed to the brink of disintegration from two years of show-and-tell, but Jones knows his work is only beginning. He knows that even if swimming lessons are made accessible and affordable, many black parents will be afraid to lead their kids to the water. The fear was palpable during a USA Swimming focus group last winter at a Denver Y. "You're already uncomfortable and scared," said one African-American mother. "You're like, 'I'm paying them money so I can have heart palpitations on the sidelines.' It's not worth it. It really isn't."
The seeds of that fear were sown in segregation. According to the book Contested Waters, a social history of swimming pools in the U.S., African-Americans were barred from even Northern urban pools after working-class public baths (where they had once been allowed) evolved into coed recreational swimming pools in the early years of the 20th century.
Jim Crow kept blacks out of almost every public beach and pool in the U.S. in the decades that followed. As Congress was debating the Civil Rights Act in June 1964, a racially mixed group of seven demonstrators staged a "wade-in" at a motel in St. Augustine, Fla.—formerly a slave-trading port—to protest their lack of access to pools and other public facilities. The motel manager showered the group with muriatic acid, a pool-cleaning chemical. (Police officers later jumped into the water and forced out the demonstrators.) A photograph of the incident made front pages nationally and is credited for facilitating the bill's passage days later.