Before the rain turned parking lots and driveways into residents’ personal lakes, locals already didn’t have to go far to swim. The beaches are a short drive away and water parks hold summer camp kids by the busload.
That’s why learning how to swim is important. As part of the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash Tour, Olympic Gold medalists Cullen Jones and Rowdy Gaines made stops in Fort Lauderdale and Miami to “save lives and build champions,” Gaines said.
Jones’ own experience led him to become an ambassador for the Make A Splash, the foundation’s initiative to save lives by providing kids across the country with lessons.
“We have a cure for it, and that’s swim lessons,” Jones said.
It’s a method Jones’ own parents chose after he almost became a drowning statistic at the age of 5. While playing at a water park, Jones became trapped under a tube and lost consciousness. Park staff resuscitated him and his parents promptly put him in swim lessons.
“So many lives could have been saved if Americans had easier access to swim lessons,” Jones said.
Approximately 3,500 people die of drowning annually, according to a 2017 USA Swimming Foundation research study. Even more startling is the fact that African-American children are 5.5 times more likely to drown than Caucasian youngsters. The study estimated that 64 percent of African-American children and 45 percent of Hispanic children in the U.S. don’t know how to swim.
“I’ve seen so many drownings that it breaks my heart,” Gaines said.
This wasn’t Gaines’ first time at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale. In 1976 and 1977, Gaines swam in the same pool as a competitor in a high school swimming championship. His junior year, he was dead last. His senior year, he was first.
Fort Lauderdale was the 50th city in his nine-year tour for swimming safety and education with Make a Splash. Since 2007, the program has given 4.9 million children swim lessons with the help of its 850 partners across the country, said Debbie Hesse, the USA Swimming Foundation executive director.
The two have made it their life’s work to raise awareness and reduce the risk of child drownings. From 2009 to present, there have been 41 fatal drownings among children under age 5 in Broward County, half of whom were African Americans, the study reported. From 2012 to 2014 alone, there were 119 deaths as a result of drowning in Miami-Dade County.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said the program makes a huge difference in the city. Families feel better, he said, knowing their kids are safe.
“When you grow up in Florida, one of the most important things is knowing how to swim,” Seiler said.