Five seconds later, the weight of the water began to pull down the 17-month-old infant.
But instead of sinking, the young child caught her breath, rolled over, and while crying, floated on her back until a relative came to rescue her.
“She knew exactly what to do,” said the child’s mother, Emily Lamar. “It was incredible – a happy ending to a parent’s worst nightmare.”
Avery is one of the infants in class at Infant Swimming Resource – a program founded in 1966 in Orlando by Dr. Harvey Barnett to teach water survival to children ages 6 months to 6 years.
By the end of August, the toddlers will have learned a seven-second swim, 10-second float and in some scenarios, be more buoyant than their able-bodied parents.
“If you are a water person like me, there is no greater peace-of-mind than knowing that if something was to happen and your child got loose, you do not have worry about a possible drowning,” local instructor Candice Fox said.
Most times, babies cry when they see Fox. The North Augusta mother brought the nationally recognized program to Augusta area this summer. But Fox said she doesn’t take it personally. She hopes the skills she teaches will keep them safe.
“I’m a cuddler,” she said. “Babies are super fun.”
For more than a decade, Fox has embraced the ISR mission, enrolling her oldest daughter, Haley, son, Bradley, and twin girls, Zoey and Shelbey, in the program to help make sure “not one more child drowns” worldwide.
The first to take the program was Haley, now 11, who was signed up in 2003 in the family’s hometown of Tampa, Fla., after Fox saw a friend’s 1-year-old daughter swim effortlessly around the family’s pool.
“It blew me away,” Fox said, adding that she was shocked to read online that the ISR’s team of 450 certified instructors has delivered more than 7.7 million self-rescue lessons and saved more than 800 lives.
What she couldn’t believe was that local parents had to drive to Athens, Ga., Greenville, S.C. or Charleston, S.C. to get their child trained – a trek Fox said was unacceptable for a region that behind Atlanta, leads the state in drowning deaths for children young than 4 years old, according to public health records.
With 20 fatalities since 2000, the region is tied with Macon and followed by Savannah at 17 deaths and Columbus at 13 infant drownings.
“With our lakes, pools and rivers, every child in the area needs to know how to survive in the water,” Fox said. “At the end of the day, there’s nobody that cannot be taught. There is no life that cannot be saved.”
Last summer, Fox said she decided to commit her time and finances to starting a program, driving 4-hours round trip to Athens for six weeks to get her ISR certification, a mixture of text-book lectures and in-water lessons.
Today, she has nine students she teaches in one-on-one classes five days a week for four to six weeks inside her backyard swimming pool.
Each class lasts 10 minutes and starts with a checklist to access the child’s energy. What was dinner, she routinely asks. When was bedtime?
“There’s a lot of science to it,” said Fox, who has already graduated 18 students, an alumni network that spans from Grovetown to Hephzibah to Aiken and is split evenly among boys and girls.
Fox said her original goal was 10 graduates.
For babies younger than a year old, the goal is to teach them to roll upside down, gain their balance, float on their back and cry until help arrives.
They start by learning breath control. Older students learn a combination of swimming with floating breaks when they grow tired.
“The program can be a little intense, but we are hands-on all the time,” Fox said, as Staff Sgt. Cheryl Hood, a contract specialist at Fort Gordon, gingerly handed over her baby to the instructor, who was standing in 3-feet of water.
When Hood let go, Cheyenne, in her third week of classes, began to cry.
“The most important thing is building a child’s trust,” Fox said.
Hood, who moved to Augusta from Korea, said the babies cry because Fox is a stranger and the water is unfamiliar.
At first, some cry through the whole session, wary of a stranger doing unfamiliar activities with them in an unfamiliar setting. But most, like Cheyenne, who is 6-months-old, stop after a few minutes.
“Watch, here she goes. She’s getting ready to roll,” Hood said. “I love it when she rolls.”
Hood said she enrolled her daughter in the program, worried that the infant may fall in the water at the family’s time-share residence in Florida.
“I cannot swim,” Hood said. “If I was standing in shallow water, I would be able to save her, but if not, what would I do?”
The course costs $105 for registration and $60 per class. Swim diapers are mandatory and inflatable armbands discouraged, because they make a child vertical and give a false sense of security, Fox said.
Jennibeth Velez, an Augusta mother who enrolled her daughter, Bella, in the program two weeks ago after a friend’s child nearly drowned, said $350 to $500 is a small price to pay for an infant’s life.
“I think the program is invaluable,” she said. “If you lost your child, what would you pay to get them back?”