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Can You Swim?

4/27/2011

By Mike Gustafson//CoRREspondent

“Swimming: (n) the sport or activity of propelling oneself through the water using limbs.”
 
Last week in Virginia, a group of college football players gathered to partake in a Navy SEALS training session. The session began when one officer asked a question. The question should have been a simple, yes-or-no question:
 
Can you swim?
 
The majority of the 36, mostly-black football players raised their hands, The Virginian-Pilot reported. But, when they were given specific definitions about what “swimming” actually entails (treading water for an extended period of time) only four of those 36 remained confident. (Read the full article here: http://hamptonroads.com/2011/04/black-college-athletes-train-seals).
 
These weren’t kids. These were grown men. College athletes. I’m not harping on them for not being able to swim. But I’m wondering: How is the definition of swimming so dissimilar? How can one person confidently believe he can swim while another thinks he can’t swim, when both swimmers might be of equal aquatic skill (i.e.: none at all)?
 
The problem is that many kids falsely think they can swim. It’s maneuvering in an entirely different element, not just an athletic activity. Take skiing. You ask me, “Can you ski?” and I’ll say, “Sure.” But point me down a hill and say, “Ready, go!” I’ll wind up in the E.R. 
 
As illustrated by the Navy Seals anecdote, sometimes people think they can swim when they cannot. Perhaps by educating the populace about this definition and its demands, more kids will be willing to enter the water, try it out, slap on some goggles and learn all the wonderful complications swimming and learning to swim actually entails.
 
Because who will sign up for swim lessons when they think they already can swim?
 
A few weekends ago I spoke to Sue Anderson, who oversees the USA Swimming Diversity Team as the Director of Programs and Services. She told me about some of the complications that arise when you ask a classroom of kids, “Who can swim?” A majority of kids will raise their hands. You then tell them to swim a length of the pool. They can’t.
 
Swimming isn’t running. Lots of people can run. It’s fundamentally easier. Everyone understands it. You don’t need a lifeguard to slap on a pair of running shoes and jog around the neighborhood. You might not complete the Boston Marathon, but people of all ages understand running’s basic components: a foot, a push, a foot, a push. Other activities are similar in relative simplicity: Biking. Roller-skating. Bowling. Golfing. Chess. Long-form division. Ask a kid, “Can you multiply 5 times 20?” and they either can, or they cannot.
 
But the very definition of swimming gets muddled. Some people think they can swim, and they’ll waddle into the pool, and the next thing you know, two lifeguards are rushing in to help them. Unfortunately, the consequences of overestimating one’s swimming skill far out-weighs overestimating other skills, like mathematics.
 
To me, it’s like the kid who thinks he can fly. He buys a cape. He walks to the edge of the stairs. He imagines his favorite superhero – Superman, perhaps – and he knows that if he just jumps far enough, he can do it too. Unfortunately, when it comes to pools, oceans, lakes, rivers, and ponds across the United States, you can’t recover from this overestimation of skill.
 
So the next time you hear someone say, “I can swim,” ask, “Can you tread water, unaided, for 5 or 10 minutes?” Sometimes the realization of our shortcomings can be life-savers, sometimes literally.