By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
As the nation shifts its focus to Mesa, Arizona and the upcoming Arena Grand Prix at Mesa presented by VisitMesa.com on April 11-13th, we turn our attention towards the state’s swimming culture.
Last week, I wrote about a culture of swimming in the desert. Arizona, a place that averages over 100 degree highs in the summer, is not exactly a place you’d think the sport of swimming would thrive. However, the state is littered and sprinkled with 50m facilities, backyard pools, and an abundance of passionate swim fans, both in public schools and private swim clubs. It’s a state with a successful, thriving collegiate swimming program (University of Arizona) and post-graduate training center (Tucson Ford), as well as an NCAA program that was saved from the brink of elimination (Arizona State men’s swimming). Numerous Olympians and legends of the sport, both present and former, have trained in Arizona (Matt Grevers, Amanda Beard, and so on…).
This week, we look at another aspect of Arizona’s swim culture: The lack of Hispanic and Latino participation in the sport.
According to a USA Swimming study, around 58 percent of children of Hispanic and Latino origin cannot adequately swim. When you consider that the population in Arizona is roughly 30% Hispanic (according to a recent U.S. Census, compared to an average state Hispanic population around 16%), that’s a large number of children at-risk for drowning.
Nearly two million Hispanics live in Arizona. Many live in urban areas where backyard pools are intertwined into the culture and lifestyle. The problem is that, according to some swim experts I’ve spoken to who live in Arizona, when you have large concentrated populations who lack swimming skills, and you mix in access to backyard pools, it’s a recipe for potential disaster.
Some local programs have aimed to get local kids of all backgrounds and ethnicities in the water. FAST (the Foundation for Aquatic Safety and Training) brings local Arizona kids into area schools and at-risk populations to teach them about swimming safety. That program uses kids to teach other kids about swim safety, tips like, “Never swim alone.” The Hubbard Family Swim School is another hugely successful swimming school that started in Arizona. They have been dubbed as one of the most successful learn-to-swim programs in the country. These types of initiatives aim to change the fact that there’s only a 13 percent chance a child will learn to swim coming from a non-swimming family. (Statistic from USA Swimming Study.)
But still, there’s a lack of elite-level swimmers who come from Hispanic or Latino backgrounds. Ryan Lochte is probably the most famous. His mother is Cuban. But when you look at the rosters of the top elite level swimmers, there are very limited numbers of Hispanic and Latino origin.
What can the Arena Grand Prix Series bring to an area like Mesa, Phoenix, and Scottsdale? It can further increase the awareness about the sport, not only among local area swim teams, but also regional populations who may not have otherwise paid attention to swimming. The meet can attract swimmers like Ryan Lochte, Missy Franklin, and other Olympians to the area as well as local and national media attention.
Arizona is a place of widespread diversity, backyard pools, and, unfortunately, statistically speaking, large numbers of kids who don’t know how to swim. Consequently, Arizona is the perfect place to bring an Arena Grand Prix. The easy part is bringing the superstars to the communities. The hard part is now bringing the communities to the superstars. Hopefully, with local media attention and marketing, efforts to increase swimming attention in local communities will raise awareness of some of the more startling statistics of at-risk youth.
And when you consider roughly one of ten kids from non-swimming families will ever learn how to swim, it’s that type of community awareness that could make differences. If you’re engaged in local Arizona communities, spread the word now. Help organize a trip to the Arena Grand Prix at Mesa. You don’t have to know how to swim to enjoy watching elite level swimming, but once you see elite level swimmers competing, you may just want to start.
Mike Gustafson is a freelance writer for USA Swimming and Splash Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @MikeLGustafson.