By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
When I was a collegiate swimmer, I was in Hawaii and decided to head to the ocean. The waves were huge. I was excited. I put on fins and went out with a buddy. “These waves are going to be awesome,” we agreed, charging into the waters. We splashed. We swam. We were laughing and having a great time. Then, unexpectedly, within 45 seconds, we couldn’t see the shore.
It took us 45 seconds to get out, and 45 minutes to get back. It was terrifying, and sobering.
This is known as a “rip current.” Oftentimes, drownings occur with experienced swimmers who underestimate the power of large bodies of water, and specifically, rip currents. As an NCAA swimmer, I assumed I could overtake any wave, any current, any tide. I swam miles every day. I had confidence – too much confidence – that altered my judgment of what was “safe water” versus “unsafe water.” I should have listened to the surfer who scolded my buddy and me, saying, “You shouldn’t be out here without a board.”
I am reminded of rip currents and drownings as this summer comes to a close. Unfortunately, our record-breaking hot summer means record-breaking drowning statistics. Drownings in many areas around the country are higher than years before.
This summer, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project, drowning rates in Lake Michigan are up 33% compared to the year before (as of Aug. 15). There have been 75 drownings in Lake Michigan alone – many a result of strong rip tide currents. With one of the hottest years on record, many people flock to the lakes, rivers, and ocean beaches in search of aquatic refuge. And whenever more people flock to the water, accidents are bound to occur.
Which is why Cullen Jones’ appearance last week in Chicago was so important. Jones, who won individual silver in the 50-meter freestyle in London, was part of last week’s “Make a Splash” program. The program aimed to give 300 Chicago kids a free swim lesson. Jones has long been the face of the “Make a Splash” program, helping kids around the country become more water-safe. His appearance in Chicago was timely: Chicago has been hard-hit by drowning accidents this summer, including a heart-wrenching episode of a world-class surgeon drowning while trying to save two kids who fell from a kayak in Lake Michigan.
Besides "Make a Splash" there are also other initiatives helping raise water safety awareness. Recently, the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) supported International Water Safety Day (IWSD) as well as encouraging all schools nationwide to introduce water safety to their kids with a letter distributed to its members:
“Unintentional drowning is the second leading cause of death for children 1-14 years of age in the U.S., according to the CDC, placing America's child injury death rate among the highest of industrialized countries,” the letter from the NASBE states. “In addition, nearly 5,000 U.S. children are in the hospital every year due to near-drowning, and of these about 20 percent suffer permanent brain damage.”
Shaun Anderson, organizer of IWSD, says, “Basically it means the NASBE endorsed [International Water Safety Day], and they are saying they do think it’s a good idea, and [water safety] should be part of school on May 15th. That is very exciting.”
He adds: “Navigating through it all, we’re starting to get a lot of momentum in D.C. Getting it to the Secretary of Education, that’s probably the next step.”
The thing is, some drownings are preventable through education and awareness, like the water safety education both “Make a Splash” and IWSD provide. One of the main problems during summer months, especially near the Great Lakes states and cities like Chicago, is that people don’t understand or underestimate the power of a rip current. I certainly didn’t when I was in Hawaii. After that episode, I can understand how easy it is to be swept out, even for a seasoned swimmer.
“Even with someone who can swim, you can find yourself in trouble,” Anderson says. “We need to up the awareness across the board.”
Even for USA Swimming registered athletes, water can be dangerous Just because you can swim doesn’t mean you can swim anywhere, any time. 10 drownings occur every single day (according to the CDC). Not all of these are because the person just didn’t know how to swim.
So, with a few more weeks of summer left, water safety needs continued support. If you’re a parent or educator, print out information about water safety. Talk to your kids and swimmers about water safety at the beach, lake, or river. Visit this website for information about “Make A Splash” and learn to swim initiatives.
Or, take a look at these 10 simple steps for water safety, provided by International Water Safety Day.
Or, join the push to help make swim education mandatory in every school in America.
“Since children spend a large part of their day in school, Resolution 658 creates an opportunity for state and local education agencies to help protect children from this preventable injury by encouraging schools to include water safety instruction in their
health education curricula,” NASBE writes. “Research shows that raising awareness and promoting water safety education can reduce the risk of drowning and lower the unintentional drowning rate.”
2012 will go down as the year the world saw Michael Phelps accomplish an incredible record-breaking feat.
Unfortunately, that might not be the only record set this summer.