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37 percent of adults cannot swim the length of a 25-yard pool (well.blogs.nytimes.com)
29 points by k-mcgrady on May 3, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments

With regard to swimming, there are huge differences between ethnic groups in the US: about 70 percent of African-American children, 60 percent of Latino children and 40 percent of white children are non-swimmers. [1] [2]

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.

[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-11172054

[2] http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/10/swimming-and-the-fe...

> In the UK, learning to swim is part of the national curriculum, unlike the US.

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.

And one key phrase in there that emphasizes a difference between the UK and US is "council pool". My experience in the US - even in Massachusetts where they actually have functioning local government and aren't too afraid of providing public services - is that providing a swimming pool is a pretty low priority for town government. Often a pool will be provided by the local school system, but access will still be based on a membership fee, which excludes a lot of people from access.

With the austerity measures in place in the UK in recent years there have been a few cases of despair at councils closing their swimming pools and leisure centres to try to cut costs. This is often despite fewer and fewer people attending them over the years.

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.


Council pools will still charge membership fees or one off fees for use by non-members. Though these fees are probably somewhat cheaper than they would be if privately provided.

One off fees are fine - my experience in the US is that pools that allow any non-member access are few and far between.

In the US even when there are swimming lessons in schools, they're often dramatically understaffed (from my point of view) -- one teacher, no lifeguard, for 30 students. There are several recent incidents in the US of immigrant kids drowning in school lessons.

How was the staffing done at your school or elsewhere in the UK?

The class was usually split up in to groups of about 10, depending on age / proficiency. There'd be a teacher leading each group.

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.

>> "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."

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.

> I consider it a basic life skill, as important as knowing how to cross a road.


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.

>> Why?

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.

> 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.

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.

As the article points out, plenty of adults drown every year. Presumably these people thought the same way.

To improve your chances of survival if you fall into the water? Pretty important skill to have I think.

How many times have you felt into the water involuntary in your life? I can't count single time.

There's a risk of 'falling into the water involuntarily' in most activities involving small boats: canoeing, kayaking, sailing dinghies, sculling or rowing in a shell.

Not being able to swim precludes you from safely attempting any of these.

Perhaps also voluntary crossing of small rivers, small lakes, flooded areas. If you're lost in a mountain and your choice is to cross a river or do a 20km walkaround, being able to swim makes a big difference (chances are you'd avoid going in the mountains altogether, but that missing a lot of fun)

Also adults know how to avoid falling into water, small kids are not so good at this game yet.

Once and another time I went in voluntarily to pull someone else out, in both cases had I not been a decent swimmer someone might have died.

Boy Scout summer camps, canoeing. The other guy didn't understand that you could, in fact, flip a canoe. Later, crossing an ice-slicked, narrow bridge in winter I fell into a creek (not very deep, not quite waste deep on me once I stood up, but certainly could've been more terrifying if I hadn't been comfortable in and around water and given it was about 20F outside and I fell through a thin layer of ice).

It's certain that many people will fall in the water. Taking that into account it is sensible to teach children how to swim. It is a simple skill that saves lives

Perhaps a dozen? Roughhousing by a pool or on a dock can lead to that.

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.

Good, because if you can't swim, it only takes one time!

That can be said about any survival skill: hunting (e.g. shooting, searching), identifying non-poisonous mushrooms or plants, knowing how to make fire without dedicated tools, surviving in cold climate, hot climate, sea and etc. You simply can't know everything. It is nice to know these skills but there is low probability that you will benefit from them.

Only 20% people in Hong Kong (and I believe mainland China) know how to swim - doesn't look like a problem for them.

Another possible reason why there may be no differences in the UK is that some councils here offer free access to swimming facilities. A council I used to live under provided free access for everyone, then budget cuts happened and I think it's now limited to under 16's.

Might it be something to do with living on an island and historically there having been more boats and water transport issues vs, say, someone living in the center of the US (Kentucky? Tennessee? Kansas?)

My first son learnt to swim before he learnt to walk. A cousin fell into a swimming pool when he was two, almost died and has severe brain damage, so we wanted to be sure it couldn't happen to a child of us.

Dateline: nineteen seventy-mumble. School swimming lesson, small town rural Australia. Me, aged seven, evidently having a mild but irritating panic attack about having to go into the water. Swimming instructor gets sick of my shit and throws me in. Oddly, this does not reduce my panic attack! He pulls me back out again and yells at me for disrupting the class.

... 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.

What a pity. The ocean is a wonderful place, being able to swim in it is one of the very best aspects of my life, also having learned to swim while growing up in rural Australia.

I had the exact same experience while taking swimming lessons as a young child in the west of Ireland. The instructor just chucked me in. She still works there.

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 good that you got someone fired because of who your parents are, top job.

Throwing a seven-year-old kid into the water because they're having a panic attack is absolutely grounds for firing. It's putting their life in danger. That instructor had no business teaching children how to swim if he doesn't understand basic water safety.

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.

He got himself fired for being an idiot. My Dad would have done the same regardless of who it was; the only difference is that some other kids (or parents) might have been too timid to approach him about it.

But yeah, thanks for your interpretation, that's good too. Pat-pat-pat.

So maybe it's a good thing Americans are becoming more buoyant?

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...[1]

[1]: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=190416

In swimming, elite swimmers are about 300% more efficient. This means that instead of 97% of their energy going to fight water resistance - 93% of their energy goes to combat water resistance, leaving 7% for forward motion. The average swimmer is lucky to get 2% to 3% of their energy to forward motion.

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.


They should have gone to Georgia Tech. At least until sometime around 1990. Before then, every Tech grad was required to take a course in "survival swimming". We had to learn to float for something like 45 minutes, swim the length of the pool underwater, swim with weights attached.

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

At MIT they still force every undergrad to either pass a swim test or take a swimming class. If I recall correctly, the test included both several laps and 10 minutes of treading water (which is harder than it looks).

I believe the treading is only required for the "boating test", if you plan to sail or row.

I believe Cornell does the same thing.

My father is/was a fisher and I come from a community that has a high proportion of people who fish generally. You'd be surprised how many fishers can't swim, despite spending their working lives out on the water.

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 guess I don't think this is very important. The key is to exercise your heart, and there are plenty of easier ways to do that.

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 downside to cycling is definitely safety unless you're using a stationary bicycle which is boring as hell. It can also get relatively expensive.

Cycling is expensive if you want it to be, but if you're trying to get exercise, there is no point in optimizing for the weight.

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.

Probably some people know how to swim, if you can and want to do something else. Try out the navy seal stroke - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lUHudMN1TU , i just recently found out about it :-)

In Australia (80+% of population living on the coastline) it's common to see schools providing the "Bronze Medallion" (http://www.royallifesaving.com.au/training/bronze-medallion) as a recommended course for students.

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).

Same in Sweden, but it's for pupils in secondary school and it also covers stuff like getting yourself out of ice holes and swimming in cold water with lots of clothing.

That would have been very useful the time I almost died falling into a frozen creek skiing in the Australian Back-Country. For a country that only has a few square kilometres of skiable terrain in winter, it's got some really nasty terrain!

Not a lot of call for that in Australia. Brilliant mental image though. "Now it's time for your 'Avoiding Hypothermia In A Hole In The Ice Whilst Being Stalked By Polar Bears' Lesson, children! Line up quickly please!"

I'm in the UK we where taught to swim at primary school and one of my secondary schools had a pool and it was part of PE.

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).

As a regular white 30 year old guy from the UK I find it so strange that so many people don't know how to swim. I know it is a common (American-centric) stereotype that black persons do not know how to swim and generally hate water but all of my black friends swim just fine and find the stereotype kind of strange too. Seriously swimming isn't that hard people and it is a skill that could very easily safe your life.

I spent six years in the US Navy, and never learned how to swim before or after I joined.

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.

A lot has to do with the location. They claim a lot of statistics from Minnesota but maybe they forget that the water is COLDER THAN A WITCH'S TIT when it's not frozen. It's not exactly the best place to learn to swim.

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.

I lived in Minnesota until age 30 and your assertion about water temperature is flat out wrong. Summers in Minnesota are much hotter than in say, San Francisco, and the water in the lakes is very comfortable for swimming.

Just knowing how to float would already prevent many cases or drowning; never mind being able to move around in the water, being able to not sink into it is in many cases more than enough. As someone who does know how to swim, once you figure out the floating part, movement then becomes pretty easy.

32% in Finland, even though most kids are taught to swim at school. 28% of school children can't swim. Note that the definition my source uses is that you need to be able to swim 200 meters to "be able to swim".

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