By Jim McCloskey
One of my strongest (and best) childhood memories is of the first time I managed to swim the full length of an Olympic-size swimming pool. Another of my strongest (and saddest) youthful recollections is of the first time I tried swimming that distance – and failed miserably: I started out well but found myself desperately dog-paddling to the side of the pool just after passing the halfway point.
As was noted by Wallace J. Nichols in the book Blue Mind (2014), humans love being close to and involved with water, no matter whether it’s an ocean, a river, a lake, a reservoir or a pond. That makes swimming as much an essential survival skill as it is a wonderful form of exercise and recreation – invaluable to all of us.
I was six years old when I “mastered” that skill. It seems young to me in retrospect but makes sense given the fact that we lived about a mile away from the Pacific Ocean: Learning how to swim – and swim well – was the key to becoming independent and to enjoying time at the beach.
Thinking back, I recall several lessons about independence wrapped up in the aquatic-education portion of long-ago summers. My mother accompanied me to my first week of swim lessons, then handed the chore off to my older sister. That arrangement didn’t last long, so a couple weeks into the summer I was riding a bicycle on my lonesome for the two miles or so it took to get to the municipal pool. It was actually a pretty big deal, because it involved crossing two busy streets on the way.
I also had to take care of a towel and the nickel I needed to pay for admission to the pool. So much responsibility! So many new experiences! That first summer, I didn’t get far enough into the program to qualify beyond the “minnow” stage. I’d made it past “guppy,” which was cool, but I couldn’t yet swim the width of the big pool and so didn’t qualify to become a “fish.”
The next summer, however, I was a minnow for less than a week and, as a fish, faced a big hurdle in making it to “flying fish,” which was the level at which the pool’s tantalizing diving board became part of the fun. To advance, I needed to be able to swim the full length of the pool – and as I mentioned above, failed at it the first time.
I didn’t want to fail again, so I spent the rest of the day at the pool (a nickel bought a lot of pool time back in those days!) swimming my arms and legs off. By the time the pool closed, I was swimming side to side with few problems and figured I was ready for another competency test before my next lesson – but it was not to be: My guess is that I was so tight from past exertions that it just wasn’t in the cards.
But on the occasion of my next lesson, the wonders never ceased: I swam the pool’s full length, became a flying fish, and when it was free time at the end of the lesson, I was allowed to use the diving board. What a great day!
I bring all of this up because, first, the memories are so strong and clear that I’ve always figured this was one of my life’s shaping experiences. Second, and with great concern, I’ve spent a lot of time in the world of aquatics worrying that kids today lack the same sort of cheap, easy access to good swimming pools and effective swimming lessons that I had.
The challenge, it seems, is mainly economic: I know approximately what it’s costing to get my granddaughter ready for a lifetime of swimming, and believe me, it’s far more than what my parents paid for lessons for me and my five siblings combined, many times over – and even allowing for nearly 60 years of inflation!
Yes, there are communities where learn-to-swim programs are within reach, but I wonder how many parents can afford lessons in places where public pools of the sort I grew up with need to pull their weight these days to stay in operation and always seem to struggle to do so.
As the weather warms and summer draws near, let’s all of us who are involved in watershaping think about what we can do in our communities to put swimming skills within everyone’s reach. Please investigate local programs that sponsor or subsidize lessons, make donations, volunteer time – do what you can to help future generations value swimming as a lifetime, necessary skill and as a great way to exercise and have fun.
When all is said and done, to thrive in the long run we in water-oriented businesses need children to grow up loving water – and watershapes – as much as we do!