A few years ago, my wife worked on an ethnographic research project about the lack of swimming skills in the African-American population. One thing that was striking was the difference with other multi-cultural countries --e.g. the UK and South Africa-- where there are no such differences in the acquisition of swimming skills between ethnic groups. In the UK, learning to swim is part of the national curriculum, unlike the US [edit: I don't mean this to be an exclusive explanation].
On a personal note, the notion that so many US children don't know how to swim is horrifying. I consider it a basic life skill, as important as knowing how to cross a road. My daughter learnt to swim before she learnt to ride a bike.
More details on exactly what kids in the UK are taught:
Swimming and water safety: All schools must provide swimming instruction either in key stage 1 or key stage 2.
In particular, pupils should be taught to:
- swim competently, confidently and proficiently over a distance of at least 25 metres
- use a range of strokes effectively [for example, front crawl, backstroke and breaststroke]
- perform safe self-rescue in different water-based situations
Key Stage 1 = Years 1 and 2, so aged 5 to 7 years. Key Stage 2 = Years 3 to 6, so ages 7 to 11.
From my own experience 25 years ago that last bit, about safe self-rescue, involved:
* how to enter water safely if you need to (ie. jumping or lowering yourself in, when not to dive etc)
* making floats out of clothing (ie. your old pyjama bottoms)
* swimming underwater, including through hoops weighed down on the pool floor with bricks (presumably to mimic navigating tight flooded spaces)
* treading water (for AGES)
* mushroom floating (not sure if there's a technical term for this?)
* how to recover somebody from the water
We went once a week to the council pool on the other side of town and pretty much everyone, all 30 of us, had learned all that by the time we finished and left for high school aged 11.
Public swimming pools are a rich seam for nostalgia in Britain. Many public swimming pools were originally built in Victorian times and so fall into the "Always There" backdrop of a city, things you never really enthuse about but would miss if they were gone.
Lidos, public outdoor pools, make up the other half of Swimming Pool Nostalgia. Most were built in the 1930s. They had already fallen out of fashion, really, when I was a kid -- since holidays abroad had become cheap -- but there was one quite near us, about 30 mins drive away, and going there was a bit of a treat.
There have been a few campaigns in recent years -- some successful -- to restore lidos or at least preserve them.
How was the staffing done at your school or elsewhere in the UK?
There would also be the lifeguards from the pool. If I remember rightly, this was at least two, if not more -- there always seemed to be one sitting up in the high chair, and there always seemed to be one patrolling the pool edge.
It was a 25m pool, and while the school was there it was closed to the wider public.
I had the same experience. Even the people that had a fear of water/drowning could swim at a basic level without assistance. I think we got a 1 hour lesson per week for around 8 weeks a year for 2 or 3 years.
As a horrible swimmer myself, I've gotten by just fine. Even went through a merchant mariner college (which is kind of like a watered-down Naval Academy) and earned a seaman license.
I suppose there's the argument that most of the earth's surface is covered in water; it would be useful to not be afraid of it, to know how to move in it, and to be confident doing so.
But then, I grew up on an island where you're never more than 75 miles from the sea; undoubtedly that's affected my worldview.
Yet we spend our entire lives--with the exception of a few excursions--on land. I agree that it's a useful skill, I just don't agree that it's as basic as walking or driving or cooking.
Not being able to swim precludes you from safely attempting any of these.
Also adults know how to avoid falling into water, small kids are not so good at this game yet.
Even leaving that out, the last time I fell into the water involuntary was a couple of years ago in my first kayak lesson. I did a stroke wrong, rolled over, and ended up in the lake.
Only 20% people in Hong Kong (and I believe mainland China) know how to swim - doesn't look like a problem for them.
... And learns an important lesson: if you're going to lose your cool and throw a kid in the pool because he's misbehaving, don't choose the school principal's son.
We got a new swimming instructor... but I never did learn to swim worth a damn. I make a point of living inland.
I didn't swim for years afterwards but eventually went back to lessons when I was around 12. Strangely enough, I now love the sea. I am an avid surfer and scuba diver.
It's unfortunate that not everyone may have been able to rectify the situation the way that etfb could, but it's not like (s)he was abusing that power.
But yeah, thanks for your interpretation, that's good too. Pat-pat-pat.
I'm joking of course, although the number of unintentional drownings in the US has been dropping steadily since the 80s, and researchers have not been able to fully explain the cause...
No wonder why most average athletes who do not know how to swim efficiently are winded. They just literally ran through a 25m wall of water.
To beat the odds, learn to swim like a fish.
I guess a lot of engineers found themselves shipwrecked or something.
Actually, the concepts were developed by a Techie back in days of yore, as I recall it. Still, it was a fun class.
EDIT- of course there's wiki entry. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drownproofing
The justification I heard was usually along the lines of "If you fall out of a boat in the middle of the sea then you're either wearing a survival suit and it floats for you... or you're not and you're dead anyways.".
(My father even fell in once, but he was wearing a survival suit.)
I think people focus too much on running and swimming. Both are difficult; running puts a lot of strain on your body as it counters forces several times its own weight 180 times a second. Good for your bones, if you can handle it. Swimming is less strain, but the equipment is very, very expensive. If you can only do it once a week, you're never going to get good enough to enjoy it.
For that reason, I recommend cycling. It's lower impact than running, and less expensive than swimming. What I like is that you can choose the exact level at which you want to exert yourself. Want to train at 75% max heart rate? Type in the number and pedal less hard if you're over, and pedal harder if you're under. Easy. (Modulo traffic and pedestrians.)
I like running and everything, but I weigh about 15 pounds too much to not hurt myself every time I go out. So cycling it is.
The difference between a 200 pound rider on a 15 pound bike and a 200 pound rider on a 20 pound bike is a $2000 rounding error.
I'm not sure how applicable this would be to the USA, but I can't see that it would hurt (it also provides basic first-aid training and CPR practice which have saved some lives as an incidental side effect).
Saved my life when I was in my late teens and screwing about on some rowing boats on a local lake and fell in.
I also pulled a kid out of a local boating lake though that was mostly shallow enough to wade (which I didn't know till I'd dropped in and might not have done if I wasn't a reasonable swimmer).
It is definitely a skill that should be taught at school (not to mention it's fantastic exercise).
They give you a basic swim test, administered by Navy SEALs. It involved (at the time, mid-90s) jumping from a 25ft high diving board into a pool, and treading water for a bit. This simulated having to dive over the edge of a ship in case you had to evacuate.
Anyway, I climb up, get to the edge of the diving board and just freeze. A very unhappy SEAL actually had to climb up and push me off the board. I must have been a really sad, pathetic case because one of the other SEALs doing the training pulled me aside and worked with me for the remainder of the day so that I could pass the swim test later that afternoon.
Kinda makes me wish I had learned when I was a kid, or had the time to learn now. At least I can still tread water.
Also, judging by how my kids handle the water at Santa Cruz, young people are invulnerable to cold water. That explains why fewer young people drown - invulnerability.