The Swimming Crisis

It was one of those funny stories told to the incoming frosh, about how students would show up at graduation with wet hair because they had to take, and pass, a swimming test as a requirement for graduation. My son took the test during orientation week, assuming graduation would be hard enough without one more requirement. It was, he said, a hard test, but he passed.

Should everybody know how to swim? Of course. Along with how to drive and, as a corollary, how to change a tire. There are probably a few other things everybody should know as well, but they didn’t make the cut for a long editorial in the New York Times.

Every year in Harlem, hundreds of parents line up outside Riverbank State Park at dawn for an elusive prize: swim classes that they can afford for their children.

As the New York Times requires, every editorial must begin grounded in race or sex, for otherwise how would we see the systems of oppression at work?

From the mighty Hudson River to the rolling ocean waves of the Rockaway Peninsula, New York City is surrounded by water. But a surprising number of New Yorkers can’t swim.

A surprising number can’t do math, can’t read and go to bed hungry as well. Then again, it’s not as if the Times says what that “surprising number” might be, or has any cite for it. But since it’s only surprising, it means only that they’re surprised. Some people are easily surprised.

In New York, and throughout the country, nonswimmers are more likely to be black. In 2010, the U.S.A. Swimming Foundation found that 69 percent of black children, 58 percent of Latino children and 42 percent of white children said they had little to no swimming ability. Racial discrimination and poverty have limited African-Americans’ access to pools. Cultural fears about the water that can be traced back to slavery also persist. And so, black children drown at almost triple the overall national rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There’s a lot of conflict packed into this problem. Blacks have limited access to pools, a cultural fear of water and drown at almost triple the overall national rate. Drowning is a terrible thing, although the other points seem to suggest why that’s the case. So learning to swim, which would be a good thing in itself, was the subject of a study by USA Swimming, which likely is a big advocate of people swimming.

As part of the initiative, USA Swimming commissioned an ambitious study recently completed by five experts at the University of Memphis’ Department of Health and Sports Sciences. They surveyed 1,772 children aged 6 to 16 in six cities — two-thirds of them black or Hispanic — to gauge what factors contributed most to the minority swimming gap.

The lead researcher, Professor Richard Irwin, said one key finding was the influence of parents’ attitudes and abilities. If a parent could not swim, as was far more likely in minority families than white families, or if the parent felt swimming was dangerous, then the child was far less likely to learn how to swim.

Since learning to swim is important, and a valuable skill both for recreation and survival, the New York Times proposed two solutions. The first was free swimming lessons.

New York City, however, can turn this around for its own kids. If the city works with businesses and nonprofits, it can offer free swim lessons to every single New Yorker.

No doubt that swimming lessons cost money that poor people can’t afford. If you’re forced to choose between breast stroke and chicken breast, the latter has a distinct advantage. The second solution is to build more public pools.

Today in New York — with 8.4 million people — there are 51 outdoor public pools that are open, with two more under repair. That’s more than 150,000 people per pool.

For comparison, Houston has 38 public outdoor pools and just 2.4 million people (or about 63,000 per pool). Washington, D.C., has 22 pools for about 700,000 people (more than 31,000 people per pool). Philadelphia has 74 pools for about 1.6 million people (about 21,600).

On a hot summer day, who doesn’t want more public pools? Where to put them may be a problem, as is the allocation of space on a densely packed island, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t want them. After all, not everyone can go to our beautiful beaches.

The Times is right, even if the issue of drowning is more idiosyncratic than real,

Between 2008 and 2018, 45 people drowned at city pools and beaches, according to data from the city’s health department. That doesn’t include tragedies like the one in 2010, when Crystal Reyes, 15, and David Lee Luccioni III, 17, drowned in the Bronx River on a hot summer July afternoon.

Nor does it include the death of Kimani Brown, a 6-year-old girl from Queens who drowned at a resort in Mexico in 2009. Her uncle, Councilman Donovan Richards, said he is working to get a new city pool in his district in Far Rockaway to provide a place for his constituents to learn to swim. “This is personal,” he said.

Should everyone learn to swim? Yes. Of course they should. But is this another racist issue, another expense demanding immediate solutions, an overarching objective for New York to accomplish before, say, it can teach its students how to read before graduating? Is this where money needs to be put because learning to swim is a bigger issue than, say, the ability to speak in standard English?

And even if swimming lessons are made available, for free, will parents take them? Maybe the answer is that it should be a requirement for graduation from public schools that students pass a swimming test, and any parent who fails to have their children learn to swim be held accountable. After all, every child should learn to swim.

35 thoughts on “The Swimming Crisis

  1. Dan

    FAFSA, swimming tests, … How many more irrelevant things will we turn into HS graduation requirements?

    1. SHG Post author

      It’s the flip side of all the good things that definitely should be, but it never seems to dawn on its advocates where it necessarily leads on the path to Utopia.

  2. Patrick Maupin

    Rabbit trail alert…

    I missed the first float test at Navy boot camp, so took the makeup test. It was me and about 50 black guys in the pool. They had all failed the initial test. Floating’s not swimming, of course, but it might be relevant to the drowning statistic.

    It was immediately obvious to me that the lean, bone-dense black guys had a lot less margin of error on their breathing than the pasty white lard asses – needed to keep their lungs full to the brim at all times to maintain the requisite buoyancy.

      1. David

        Body composition does impact your buoyancy. Muscle and bone are denser than fat. The amount of air in your lungs also has a significant impact. Finally the water itself can make a difference, saltier makes it easier to float which is demonstrated at an extreme when floating in the Dead Sea.

        All that said, familiarity and comfort in the water makes a big difference in floating. A more dense but more skilled person may float with only their lips and nose above water and be able to maintain this with little to no motion. Controlling breathing and keeping breaths shallow so the lungs stay full can keep things stable. A less experienced person may be less dense and float higher but lack control and be unable to maintain a position to keep access to air without expending considerable energy.

    1. wilbur

      I’ve always found it much easier to swim than to tread water. I’m not sure I could have ever passed a float test.

      When my oldest sister was about to graduate from our state university, she had to pass a swimming test. I’m not sure how she did it or if she wrangled a waiver, but she graduated somehow. My father told her she had too much lead in her butt, but he was deathly afraid of the water too.

  3. Jeffrey Gamso

    Back in the day, those of us at Bronx Science who could swim bitched and moaned that while Stuyvesant had a pool, we had a mural.

    A swimming test for graduation might, therefore, have been problematic, but I guess they figured we’d all figure out how to breath underwater. (There’s an old joke about that I won’t annoy you with.)

  4. Weebs

    Does a societal problem exist that the New York Times thinks can’t be cured by making it free?

  5. B. McLeod

    So, despite being surrounded by water, the city needs more places to swim. That is surprising.

  6. Ken

    What does the NYTimes know that made it push this to the front of their social agenda? Is there a tsunami scheduled for sometime in February? And, if so, why don’t they just tell everyone so they can all move to Buffalo?

    1. SHG Post author

      Not just to the front, but at enormous length. Somebody’s kid didn’t get into free swimming lessons and they’re pissed.

  7. Lawrence Kaplan

    Interestingly enough, according to Jewish Law a father has to teach his son (or hire someone to teach his son) three things: Torah ( traditional Jewish learning), a trade, and how to swim.

    1. SHG Post author

      תנינא להא דת”ר האב חייב בבנו למולו ולפדותו וללמדו תורה ולהשיאו אשה וללמדו אומנות וי”א אף להשיטו במים רבי יהודה אומר כל שאינו מלמד את בנו אומנות מלמדו ליסטות ליסטות ס”ד אלא כאילו מלמדו ליסטות

      1. Lawrence Kaplan

        SHG: Thanks for citing the original source and reminding me that a father is also obliged to marry his son off. Also, the obligation to teach one’s son to swim is not the mainstream view, but only put forward by “ there are those who say.”

  8. KP

    They don’t need to swim, they can jump…
    Tell me when there’s an editorial about free jump lessons for white boys.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      When the maintenance guy threatened to quit over having to keep clearing all the dead babies out of the pool.

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