Robert Strauss, founder and teacher at the swim school, Swim Gym, who has taught more than 45,000 kids to swim in more than 30 years, said he notices the same trend.
“We’re a football, baseball and basketball community with little professional swimming because kids only learn [to swim] so they don’t drown,” said Strauss, who competed with Mexico’s National Swim Team in the 1972 Olympics at Munich. “Teaching to not drown becomes the motive instead of let’s teach to swim so you could scuba, snorkel, kayak, sail, or compete. If you teach them only to not drown, they get bored.”
But drowning is still a problem.
Jim O’Connor, aquatic safety coordinator for Miami-Dade County’s Department of Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces, and co-chair for the county’s Drowning Prevention Coalition, said that drowning is the No.1 cause of death for children under 5 in Florida.
Miami-Dade and Broward lead the state in the number of drowning deaths per year. In Miami-Dade alone, an average of 45 deaths per year are caused by drowning, O’Connor said.
At the Venetian Pool in Coral Gables, where swim classes have been offered since 1958, W.H.A.L.E. tales — Water Habits Are Learned Early — are part of the swimming classes.
Instructor Sonia Dallas has taught there for more than 25 years. The pool doesn’t cancel lessons if it’s raining; instead, it offers dry lessons, which include safety drills and dry strokes.
“We don’t only teach swimming, we teach water safety,” she said.
At Swim Gym, which operates out of the Jewish Community Centers in Miami Beach, Kendall and Aventura, Strauss teaches water safety by helping kids feel confident in the water, through play. He and staffers set up the pool with different stations such as water polo, logrolling, and a boogie board attached to a string, powered by a machine, that drags the kids along the water’s surface.
Approximately 545 children are enrolled in Swim Gym this summer, and about 12,000 children are enrolled in the county’s learn-to-swim programs annually.
County instructors are trained by the American Red Cross. Classes range from about $10 to $60 through the county, depending on the time of day and location, according to O’Connor.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen an increase [in the number of participants enrolled],” O’Connor said about Miami-Dade’s swimming and water safety lessons, offered since the 1960s.
Poppell at Gulliver is witnessing the same growth. There were fewer than 100 active members when he inherited the swim club; now there are 260.
“I think it comes back to the coaches being able to motivate and inspire kids in the sport,” said Poppell. “Coaches need to show what’s out there, because if they believe they can achieve something, then they wouldn’t stop swimming.”