Kids Teaching Kids About Water Safety


Alcatraz swimmer (large)

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

They gather in masses at San Francisco’s Hyde Street Pier. It’s 6am. It’s dark. Everyone’s talking. Everyone’s abuzz. Everyone’s excited. Ahead are the opaque waters of the San Francisco Bay, which is around 50 degrees. Further out on those cold, dark waters, sitting in the water like a floating concrete boat, is Alcatraz, the infamous prison. Or, for these excited swimmers, a launching point.

These are not your typical open water swimmers gathering at the Hyde Street Pier. These are kids from all overAlcatraz swim (medium) the country who are about to complete the 1.4 mile open water swim from Alcatraz to San Francisco to raise money for swimming safety.

The annual Alcatraz swim is a fundraiser for the Foundation for Aquatic Safety and Training (FAST). Every year, 50 or 60 kids swim from Alcatraz to the shoreline of San Francisco to raise awareness and funds to support swim safety training in at-risk communities. What makes FAST unique is they don’t just enlist adults to travel to schools to talk water safety – kids give presentations themselves. At FAST, it’s kids teaching other kids about water safety.

“The kids go out to at-risk populations and schools in those communities and share those messages of water safety,” said Joe Zemaitis, swim coach and founder of FAST. “No one can relate to a kid like another kid.”

Alcatraz (medium)Right now, FAST works with kids in Arizona, where there are a plethora of backyard pools, and drownings. Kids under five years old are especially at risk. So, FAST enlists the help of kids to go to classrooms and talk to them about water safety. Third, fourth, and fifth graders talk to younger kids in kindergarten through second grade. When an adult tells you not to do something, sometimes it resonates. When another kid tells you not to do something, you remember. It’s an unorthodox way to communicate, with potentially much more impact. And when you’re trying to teach water safety, communication is vital. Especially when working with refugee populations.

“I can fake my way through Spanish, but Burmese?” said Zemaitis, who helps organize water safety lessons with refugee populations in Arizona. “We have kids who know Burmese, and the kids relate with them and learn in five sessions how to be safer in the water.”

The Alcatraz swim itself is the flagship fundraiser for the program. Back in 2006, 7-year-old Braxton Bilbrey made national news when he became the youngest person to ever brace the cold waters and complete the Alcatraz swim. In the wake of that swim, and its subsequent publicity, Joe Zemaitis, Braxton’s coach, founded FAST. Now, the foundation has about 500 kids signed up to teach other kids about water safety – including the sizable refugee population in Arizona – and they are looking to expand into the Bay Area, into East Palo Alto, where gangs are numerous and water safety is a concern.

“In the Bay Area there are lots of immigrants who don’t know how to swim. A lot of Asian immigrants don’t know Alcatraz swimmers (medium)how to swim,” says Victoria Liou-Johnson, Pacific Region Director for FAST. “In East Palo Alto, there is a lot of gang violence and low income. Those kids not only don’t know how to swim, but don’t have the opportunity because of lack of resources.”

For anyone, swimming from Alcatraz is a notable feat. For kids, it’s a memory of a lifetime. It’s bragging rights. “What did you do for spring break?” friends will ask them, and they will respond, “I swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco.”

But it’s also about reaching out to kids their own age. It’s about sharing important water safety messages to those who may otherwise not know how to be safe around the water. And some of these kids who visit classrooms – called “FAST Talkers” – brace the 1.4 miles of cold San Francisco salt water once a year to raise money.

The swim itself is a huge accomplishment. The cold. The distance. It’s not for everyone.

“It’s a big deal for them, the family, the school and community,” Zemaitis said. “It’s an amazing accomplishment if they put their minds to something. It’s tough. It’s cold. It’s painful. But it’s do-able.”

Liou-Johnson agrees. She says she gets all sorts of questions from parents about sharks, safety, and logistics. “We reassure them the younger kids are one on one with an adult swimmer, who is there to watch out for the kid. There are boats right there. If the kid is in distress, they can always opt to get in the boat.” They hire approximately, one boat for every five swimmers, and water safety conditions are checked and re-checked the day of the race. It’s co-organized by Bob Roper, who has been organizing open water swims in the San Francisco Bay area for decades.

As for sharks, Zemaitis says, “Since 1920, there’s never been a swimmer attacked by a shark or a great white sighted inside the Golden Gate Bridge.”

This year, on April 20th and 21st (there is a Sunday Golden Gate Bridge swim scheduled as well), kids will take to the cold, chilly waters of San Francisco to challenge themselves, to enjoy the open air and waters, and raise money for a good cause. Zemaitis told me a few stories of all sorts of people accomplishing the swim – not just kids, but people with disabilities, parents who previously couldn’t swim, and people overcoming their own personal perceived limitations.

“It’s a party type atmosphere,” Zemaitis said. “It’s not a race. It’s an event. Escape your limitations, no matter who you are.”

He added: “If you can escape Alcatraz, you can escape anything.”

Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.