Swimmers save lives — including their own

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Lee Pitts with a swim class

(l-r) Shannon Kinstler, Monika Fastner, Camille Peirce

-Photos by Charles Hallman

Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional death in the United States. Blacks ages 5-14 are at least three times more likely to drown every year than are Whites of the same age, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Such drowning deaths among older Black males ages 12-18 are also high in Minneapolis, especially on the city’s North Side, adds North Community YMCA Aquatics Director Monika Fastner.

The Twin Cities YMCAs participated in a 2008 Minority Swimming Study by the University of Memphis Health and Sport Sciences department. It concluded that Blacks and Latinos “were significantly less skilled or comfortable in the pool [and] significantly more afraid of drowning or being injured while swimming than White respondents.” Black females were found to be less comfortable in the pool than Black males.

Black and Latino parents were “significantly more afraid” that their child might drown or be injured while swimming, the study also pointed out. “There were not a whole lot of surprises” with the report’s conclusions, says Twin Cities YMCA Aquatic Product Manager Shannon Kinstler.
“I’ve been swimming in North Minneapolis my whole life,” Camille Peirce proudly says. She first began swimming at the local Boys and Girls Club. Later, as a pre-teen during the mid-1980s, she joined the Minneapolis Seahorses swim team, which was mostly composed of Blacks. “My hair was still there, but I would be ashy as ever coming out of the pool,” says Peirce.

Various fears that sometimes keep Blacks from swimming, such as females with chemically straightened hair losing their hair after they go into a chlorinated pool, still exist, says Fastner. “We combat that with the use of swim caps.”

Lee Pitts, who has produced a swim instructional DVD, “Waters: Beginners Swim Lesson for Adults and Children with Lee Pitts,” says that fears that Blacks have about swimming cannot be minimized. “With many Black people in their life, they have a relative or close friend who has drowned,” he points out.

In a phone interview, Pitts says he learned to swim growing up in Birmingham, Alabama. “They were giving free swimming lessons in the ’hood for low-income kids. So at six years old, through the Boys and Girls Club, I got swimming lessons. [However] I saw many of my friends being taken out of the pool by their parents because they were afraid that they might drown, and they never learned how to swim,” he recalls.

Such parental fears have had an inverse effect on Black children, putting them in greater danger rather than keeping them safe. “We still have a bunch of people doing that to their children, putting all this fear in them,” claims Pitts.

“Our parents are so paranoid about swimming, that it kept many of us from swimming as kids. But they didn’t know that it was keeping us from learning one of the basic necessities in life.”
“I had friends who didn’t swim,” says Peirce, adding that two of them did become swimmers “because they saw how much fun we were having.”

Kecia Harden of St. Paul says her children learned how to swim as youngsters at a local swimming pool. “I started him when he was two,” she says of her son, now a junior in high school. Her daughter, now in college, was once a member of a swim team.

Harden says she didn’t let her own fears keep her children out the water. “I am not a swimmer — I have a fear of water. But I didn’t want them messed up like me.”

“I don’t think the kids have the fear [of swimming] — maybe a little bit of fear, but they move beyond that,” says Fastner. She recalls one of her first swim lessons at the Northside Y: “The first day [a mother] handed me her child in the water, and she said, ‘Please do not let my child drown.’”

Fastner reassured her, but “she stood there the entire 45 minutes on edge and constantly talking to her child to see if she was OK. By day five, [the mother] was sitting on the edge [of the pool]. By fall, we saw the mom in swimming lessons at our branch.”

The Twin Cities YMCA branches sponsors swim classes throughout the year, says Kinstler. Edina-based Abbie’s Hope, and Hawkins, Inc., a local water treatment company, help pay for swimsuits, hair caps and goggles for the North Community’s swim program.

Swimming can offer many career opportunities as well. Marine biologist, scuba diver, fishing guide, oceanographer, underwater photographer, and joining the U.S. Navy or Coast Guard are among several occupations available to those with some swimming proficiency.

However, jobs at swimming pools and water parks are not available to Black non-swimmers, notes Pitts. “We have a lack of skilled aquatic people in our communities. There are jobs at these inner-city swimming pools that are just sitting around, year after year. Those jobs in the suburbs are filling up like hotcakes because White kids get their [swimming] certification at an early age and get those jobs.”

The Northside YMCA also offers lifeguard certification courses for local teenagers, usually at little or no cost, says Fastner. “We had five [Blacks] participate last December. All were from this neighborhood,” she says proudly, adding that the students have been hired either as lifeguards or swim instructors.

“One of the things we are really proud of in this neighborhood is that 97 percent of the people in this pool are African Americans, and our staff is a representation of that,” notes Fastner. “We have an amazing African American staff who work every single day with the kids. They are amazing examples for the kids of what cool things you can do when you learn how to swim.”

“Being a swimmer, I was able to go to lifeguarding class for free through the YMCA,” admits Peirce, who has worked as a lifeguard for several years. She adds that she remembers when swimming once was a mandatory component of public schools’ physical education curriculum.
“I think swimming — as well as any type of [physical] activity — is gone, and it needs to come back,” surmises Peirce. “It’s a lifelong skill.”

Pitts strongly urges that all Black children learn how to swim no later than age seven. Moreover, he believes that if Black children aren’t exposed to swimming at young ages, “There is a strong possibility that they never will learn how to swim. And not because they don’t want to, but because of embarrassment, lack of opportunity, engagement in other physical activities or sports, and they don’t see swimming as a fit.”

“I’d would say, start them definitely no later than [age] two,” Harden says.

“You don’t have to be an elite swimmer,” adds Kinstler, “but you have to be comfortable. It’s so good for your body and soul.”

“I’ll swim until I pass away,” concludes Peirce.

Several Black swimmers are also featured in this week’s “Another View” column on the MSR sports page.

For more information on Pitts’ DVD, visit www.LeePitts.com or call 877-830-0391. For more information on the YMCA’s water safety programs, Monika Fastner can be contacted at 612-302-7273 or Monika.Fastner@YMCAmpls.org.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.