Free swim lessons part of larger effort to reduce drownings

LANSING — Strapped with goggles and neon-colored pool noodles tucked under their bodies, three young students paddle towards coach Mia Dodd as she walks backward, looping around the shallow end of the pool.

Fearlessly kicking their feet and blowing bubbles, they make their way past the pool dividers, where the pool floor begins to dip down. Dodd holds their hands one by one as they learn to safely sit on the edge of the pool and jump in.

Every Tuesday through Thursday morning, Laurie Jonckheere watches her two granddaughters receive free swim lessons at this pool in Howell.

“They’ve always both liked the water,” Jonckheere said. “It’s good for people to know how to swim. You never know when you’re going to need to do it on an emergency basis.”

Teaching youngsters swimming skills is part of a larger effort to reduce drownings in Michigan, particularly on the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes can be dangerous for swimmers when the weather changes. Drowning deaths have gradually increased across the Great Lakes from 74 in 2010 to 108 last year, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue

According to the rescue project, there have been 15 drowning deaths so far this year.

Dodd leads lessons at the Highlander Aquatic and Fitness Center, part of a collaboration between Huron-Clinton Metroparks and Southeast Michigan swim facilities aimed at closing the poverty gap in communities where many families can’t afford swim lessons. The effort taught more than 1,000 children to swim last summer and has grown to 1,300 students this summer.

Through feedback from park visitors and surveys, Huron-Clinton Metroparks officials say there is broad interest in swimming and water facilities, but the cost of lessons can be a barrier for many Detroiters and children of color.

Danielle Mauter, the agency’s chief of marketing and communications, said a staggering 70% of children in Detroit have little to no swimming experience.

“Our ultimate goal is to be for every single person in Southeast Michigan to know how to swim,” Mauter said. “Each year, the metroparks are interested in growing the number of lessons served year over year, and that was our big focus this summer.”

Summer is also when swimmers hit the beaches across Michigan.

In recent years, the state has taken more steps to protect their safety, including fining swimmers who go into the water despite double red flag warnings at designated state park beaches.

The “double red flag” was introduced last summer to indicate where people are prohibited from going into the water, with exceptions for “board sport recreational individuals” such as surfers and kiteboarders.

Although the park flags run consistently on state beaches, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has no control over how a city or township beach flag system is run, said Pat Whalen, the district supervisor for DNR’s Parks and Recreation Division. State and city beaches have different meanings for the red flag, he said.

For example, in South Haven, a red flag signals the water is closed and swimmers can be fined $1,000 if they ignore the warning. But a 10-minute drive away, Van Buren State Park follows DNR’s flag system where a red flag is merely a recommendation to stay out of water, not an order, with no fine for doing so, said Dave Benjamin, a co-founder and an executive director of the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.

Michigan’s beach flags are “consistently inconsistent,” Benjamin said, which leads to some drownings being attributed to a lack of awareness of water conditions. He said 66% of drownings involve people who know how to swim.

Not understanding the meaning of safety flags can leave even competent swimmers vulnerable.

“There’s no education and enforcement there, so it dilutes the meaning of the flag,” Benjamin said. “We do want everyone to learn how to swim, but we also want them to understand that knowing how to swim isn’t water safety.”

Even good swimmers can drown if they’re not taught how to handle a rip current, a common challenge on the Great Lakes.

DNR’s Mauter said rip currents–sometimes called riptides — are less of a focus in swim classes as most lessons take place in pools, although some lessons take place on open water beaches, touching on lake safety.

Last year, Illinois passed a law requiring water rescue equipment on all private and public Lake Michigan waterfronts. Bob Pratt, also a co-founder and an executive director of the rescue project, said he wants similar legislation in Michigan.

In addition to its summer program, Huron-Clinton Metroparks offered free swim lessons this past school year. Though many locations are booked, more locations and lesson times will be added throughout the summer.

In addition to free lessons for children 5 and older, they receive a swimsuit, swim cap, goggles, bag and towel.

Ashley Zhou has an environmental reporting internship under the MSU Knight Center for Environmental Journalism’s diversity reporting partnership with the Mott News Collaborative.


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