Blacks campaign to teach youngsters how to swim

Last year, G'Mahnee Robinson got the yearning to follow his cousins into the family pool.

There was one problem. He was only 1-year-old, and he didn't know how to swim.

If not for his father, who learned how to swim at age 10, he might not have made it out of the pool that day.

"I jumped right in to get him," said his father, Gregory Robinson. "I had to show him what water was all about."

Teaching G'Mahnee, now 2, how to swim became a priority for Mr. Robinson. He wanted to ensure his son would look at swimming differently than most black children.

"He could fall in the pool, and I'm not there," he said. "I know a lot of us don't swim, because they look at it like golf or tennis -- as a white sport."

Nearly 60 percent of black children cannot swim, almost twice the number of their white counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disparity is reflected in the higher drowning rate among black youths.

Black children ages 5 to 14 drown three times more often than their white counterparts of the same age. Blacks of all ages drown 1.3 times more than whites.

One recent local drowning was that of Nick Moore, a black 29-year-old husband and father of two from Belvedere. He drowned in Lake Murray on May 3 while canoeing with a friend. His mother, Emma Moore, said he wasn't a good enough swimmer to be at the lake, which goes as deep as 360 feet.

John Cruzat, the diversity specialist for the USA Swimming Foundation which did a swimming study prompted by the CDC data, said the low percentage of young black swimmers stems in part from generations of blacks that did not have access to public pools.

The limited access led to high numbers of black people who were non-swimmers, and they passed on their reluctance -- and fears about water -- to their children.

"Part of the civil rights movement was based on the exclusion of blacks at public pools and public beaches," Mr. Cruzat said.

Mr. Cruzat speaks around the country about the importance of breaking through the cultural barriers.

"My vision is to see this sport become as diverse as our country," he said. "Beyond that, I also want parents to recognize the need to educate their children on water safety. It's not a matter of if their child will find themselves in a body of water, it's when."

About 50 children, mostly black, play at the Southside Tubman Family YMCA each day throughout the summer, said Shawn McNair, a YMCA swimming instructor and certified lifeguard. Only about 30 percent of those are swimmers, and that low number is attributable to parents not pushing their children to learn how to swim.

"I think it's really the adults," he said. "If they have a fear, they're going to instill that in their kids."

Though Mr. McNair's parents never emphasized swimming, he said he had a love of water and a desire to teach water safety at a young age.

"I'm always willing to help, because I'm looking at it as giving back that life-saving skill," he said.

Offering swimming training as a part of school curriculums could have an immense effect on the swimming disparity, Mr. Cruzat said.

The Josh Project, a program started by Wanda Butts, a black woman who lost her son to drowning, offers free swimming training to all young people in Toledo, Ohio.

Mr. Cruzat said he hopes other states will follow Ohio's lead.

"The statistics are just so apparent," he said. "You will teach your child to swim or they will drown."

Reach Stephanie Toone at (706) 823-3215 or stephanie.toone@augustachronicle.com.

RACIAL COMPARISON

- Between 2000 and 2005, the unintentional drowning rate for blacks across all ages was 1.3 times that of whites. For American Indians and Alaskan Natives, this rate was 1.8 times that of whites.

- The drowning rate of black children ages 5 to 14 is 3.2 times that of white children in the same age range. For American Indian and Alaskan Native children, the drowning rate is 2.4 times higher than for white children.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention