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Juan Sebastian Barreneche (AP)

Six Teens' Drowning A Reminder Of Swimming Disparity

Aug 3, 2010

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If there's sadder news than the story of six teens — three children from one family and three from another — drowning in the Red River in Shreveport, La., it's hard to imagine what it could be.

The youngsters, none of whom could swim, were at a river side picnic at a local park and apparently went wading in the water when some got into trouble as the river bottom dropped away.

Other youngsters who attempted to help them, couldn't swim either, adding immensely to the tragedy.

The story is a reminder of one of the safety related disparities that exist in the U.S.; young blacks are victims of unintentional drowning at significantly higher rates than white of like age.

In 2008, USA Swimming commissioned a study to examine the issue and found that the ability to swim correlated strongly with household income and whether parents themselves could swim.

The study found that nearly 60 percent of black children couldn't swim safely compared with 31 percent of white children.

An Associated Press story on the Shreveport drownings quotes a USA Swimming representative explaining that it's access and exposure to pool time more than anything else that explains why the disparity.

The drowning "confirms that what we are finding, that this continuing cycle of people not knowing how to swim and their children not knowing how to swim and still being around water," said Sue Anderson, USA Swimming's Director of Programs and Services. "It's the continuing lack of awareness of how important it is that children learn how to swim."

The story makes Anderson's point in a later paragraph:

Marilyn Robinson, a friend of the families, told The Times of Shreveport she watched helplessly as the victims went under. She said a large group of family and friends, including roughly 20 children, were out at a sandbar to barbecue and have a good time. They frequent the area and were familiar with the water, Robinson said. DeKendrix said he had been going down to the river all week.

"None of us could swim," Robinson said. "They were yelling 'help me, help me. Somebody please help me.' It was nothing I could do but watch them drown one by one."

The reality is that even if some of those who watched helplessly had known how to swim, they might not have been able to save any of the victims and might have become victims themselves if the panicking non-swimmers had pulled them down. You have to be taught how to be a rescue swimmer.

Another reality is that virtually anyone can learn how to swim given the time and access to a pool.

There's a persistent misunderstanding which can be readily found on the Internet that blacks can't swim because they're more densely muscled than whites. I've even heard some black people say this.

But that's not based on science. It's not even based on what can be observed since there are plenty of blacks who can swim, just not as many as there should be.

Again, what it comes down to is time, access and parents who make it a point to get a child swimming lessons.

Growing up in New York City where the public pools were as jammed as a rush-hour subway car during summer, and with parents who didn't swim, I didn't learn until I became an adult and paid for lessons.

But my kids learned how because my wife and I made it a point to make sure they did.

Perhaps the searing Shreveport tragedy which is getting significant national attention will persuade more adults make the effort to learn to swim themselves and to make sure their children learn, too.

That would be the best outcome possible from such a terrible story.

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