BY Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Swimming is a fitness tool for life.
That’s the philosophy most in the swimming community share, and it's the impetus behind last weekend's 16th Annual Big Swim in New York City.
The free event, which is open to children ages 6-12 who are not already members of a swim team, is designed to raise awareness of childhood obesity throughout NYC, promote water safety and raise donations for Asphalt Green's Waterproofing program -- which addresses both issues through education and participation.
Considering that, according to Asphalt Green, 43 percent of public school children in kindergarten through fifth grade are overweight and 24 percent are obese, and African-American children are three times more likely to drown as Caucasian children, events like this are vital to changing -- and often saving -- the lives of children in NYC as well as throughout the United States.
"The Big Swim is an annual event to build awareness around swimming," said Asphalt Green Director of Marketing Christina Klapper. "Participants and supporters learn about Asphalt Green's program, and Waterproofing isn't only about learning how to swim and safety in the water to prevent drowning, but it creates lifetime fitness habits."
Asphalt Green is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Manhattan, N.Y., that is dedicated to helping individuals of all ages and backgrounds achieve health through a lifetime of sports and fitness.
This year's daylong educational celebration -- which took place in the organization's 50-meter Olympic-standard indoor pool on its 5-plus acre campus Saturday, May 14 -- welcomed a record 1,074 registered kids for the Big Swim. Of those, 664 boys and girls from more than 292 schools participated in the meet.
Also in attendance to support the event was U.S. Olympic gold medalist and swimming ambassador Rowdy Gaines, who acted as the event host, as well as the Ohio State Synchronized Swimming Team, several U.S. and world Olympians and elite athletes and more than 250 volunteers who helped make the event proceed without a hitch.
The Big Swim featured an open, free meet for kids in a 25-yard freestyle by age group. Every child was recognized as a winner, receiving a medal, T-shirt and swim cap.
However, the event's big winner -- and benefactor -- was Asphalt Green's Waterproofing program, which was established in 1993 to address the lack of access to swimming lessons for children in low-income neighborhoods. Nearly 300 people made donations to Waterproofing at a benefit luncheon that occurred during The Big Swim event.
In total, Asphalt Green has taught more than 31,000 children -- primarily African-American and Latino -- to swim. This year alone, the organization has impacted the lives of 1,300 children by giving them swimming lessons and teaching them about water safety -- along with the benefits of adopting swimming as a lifestyle activity.
"The lessons learned in the pool carry over into other facets of life -- social, academic, physical and psychological," Klapper said. "Our goal is not only to teach a valuable survival skill, but it is also to help children develop lifelong fitness habits."
According to Klapper, the awareness issue goes beyond the participating kids. It also impacts the psyche and understanding of parents -- many who never learned to swim themselves.
"The Big Swim is a way for parents to relate how sports are not only a fun way to keep kids active but a way to participate together," Klapper said. "Parent response (during the meet) was thrilling and positive. From their loud cheers in the stands to proud faces upon greeting their kids after the meet, it was a fun day for all."
Because all of Asphalt Green's community programs -- which also include community sports leagues and a recess enhancement program along with Waterproofing -- rely upon donations, events like The Big Swim serve dual purposes. It not only raises awareness of the organization's impact on children and families but also helps raise funds to make these programs possible year after year.
Asphalt Green will open a second campus later this year in Battery Park City. The 52,000-square-foot community center will feature a 25-yard pool, warm-water teaching/exercise pool, fitness center, gymnasium, studio space, classrooms, culinary center, theater and other multi-use spaces.
"Our core community programs not only help create change but, in some cases, help save young lives," Klapper added. "Beyond Waterproofing, Asphalt Green brings the joy of movement, play and team sports to more than 13,000 inner-city kids each year."
To learn more about The Big Swim and Asphalt Green -- as well as make a financial donation to this life-changing organization -- visit www.asphaltgreen.org or call 646-981-2230.