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Program for Young Minority Swimmers Is a Summer Smash

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by Andrew Astleford, Washington Post

The poignant moments are frequent for John Mason as he watches his young swimmers grow up. He may melt at the sight of their gummy grins or smile when they coo as the cool water washes over them. But there’s more to it than that: He is helping to save lives.

“To see the kids start where they can barely put their faces in the water,” the swim coach said, “and three or four weeks later, they’re over here doing this stuff, you’re like, ‘Wow.’ ”

Mason leads 130 students, 104 of whom are black, ages 2 1/2 to 14 at a Prince George’s County learn-to-swim program. They come to Fairwood Community Pool in Bowie five days a week with bright faces, their hands clasping beach-themed towels and sunscreen. The large black representation is in contrast to a study released in May that said almost 60 percent of black children can’t swim, about twice as many as white youth.

“When you’re in the water,” said Jessica Lewis, 13, drying herself under a canopy, “you just feel free.”

The program was one of the first of its kind. In 1988, SwimAmerica, a national learn-to-swim program, began with five pilot programs, one of which included Mason’s. He held lessons at Bowie State University and attracted children from Crofton and north Bowie, predominantly white areas. In 2003, the school decided not to rent its pool to outside groups and Mason was forced to look elsewhere.

The move changed the demographics of his clientele. He relocated about 12 miles southwest, to the Prince George’s Sports & Learning Complex adjacent to FedEx Field in Landover. (Sessions are held only at Fairwood Community Pool during the summer.) By the 2000 census, the population of greater Landover was 92 percent African American. Mason’s students reflected the figures.

“We’ve been doing it for a year now,” said Cheryl Steplight, whose children Naomi, 8, Christian, 7 and Micaiah, 4, attend. “I had a bad experience at another program, and I spoke to [Mason], and he was adamant about the process and the way he taught. Based on what he said, I gave it a try, and we love it.”

USA Swimming would, too. Last October, the organization approached five University of Memphis Health and Sport Sciences faculty members to conduct a study on the swimming habits of minority children. Researchers surveyed 1,772 children ages 6 to 16 at YMCAs and public schools in lower-income areas of Chicago, Houston, Memphis, Miami, Oakland, Calif., and Philadelphia. Researchers found 58 percent of black and 56 percent of Hispanic children couldn’t swim, compared with 31 percent of white children. They said parental influence played a role; if a mother and father avoided water, it was likely their children would as well.

“Minority swimmers, despite having the access, don’t swim,” said Carol Irwin, a researcher involved with the study. “Especially [with] the African American population . . . there are a lot of cultural issues about how parents don’t engage their children in early swim lessons.

“It’s a socioeconomic issue more than anything. The poor white respondents and the poor black respondents responded very closely to one another, so the economic issues were very strong throughout. It isn’t just [about] race.”

The race factor has historical implications. Accounts mention that during the mid-19th century, public pools served as bathhouses where blacks, whites and other ethnic groups socialized in immigrant neighborhoods. By the 1920s, pools became a symbol of middle-class leisure that attracted families wary of racial interaction. Some locations became segregated and facilities were constructed in areas away from minority populations.

Later, aquatic areas became sites of contention during the civil rights movement. Groups held wade-ins at municipal pools and along white-only beaches. Past barriers prohibiting access may account for the dearth of interest for some.

“What we discovered through the research . . . [is] parents from Hispanic communities and African American communities who represent drowning [accidents] of children under the age of 16 are dealing with some inherent fears of the water,” said John Cruzat Jr., USA Swimming’s diversity specialist. “This manifests in them not taking their children to quality learn-to-swim programs even if they exist in their communities.”

USA Swimming hopes to change the trend. In March, the organization teamed with YMCA of the USA in launching a campaign to offer free or low-cost swim lessons for at-risk children. “I know USA Swimming has a long-term strategic plan to increase minority participation, not only from a competitive standpoint but a public health standpoint,” said Richard Southall, a researcher involved with the study.

Back at Fairwood Community Pool, Mason’s lessons continued. During a recent 9:30 a.m. session, a group of 14 children, none older than 4, joined hands with instructor Angela Cummings to form a circle. They bobbed above water, their toes grazing the smooth surface three feet below. It was time to end the day with a game called “Tea Party.”

“Go under [the water] and set the table!” Cummings told the children. “Go, go, go! Good job!

“Go under and pass out the cookies!

“How many cookies did you eat, Tomi?”

“Eighteen!” the girl said.

“Eighteen! Oh, my goodness!”

“The kids, their smiles are always so happy,” Cummings said later.

“You can’t be in a bad mood when you have 2-year-olds happy to swim.”

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Written by Symphony

July 14, 2008 at 2:16 pm

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