The Soluble Problem

December 13th, 2018

As the year comes to a close and we reflect on what we might do to make a difference, here’s a different idea:

Throw some folks in a pool and teach them to swim.

As published in The Daily Memphian, 12/13/18

(photo from The Ben Hooks Institute website)



Our kids were on swim teams growing up – several years of three hours at swim meets waiting for their five minutes in the water. They, like most of the kids in goggles and Speedos in those private club pools, weren’t serious swimmers. The serious swimmers stood out, water their natural element, their turns and strokes strong and smooth, as fluid as their field of competition, as assured as they were perfectly and powerfully repetitive.

I remembered one in particular when my friend Eric Epperson called and asked me to have a cup of coffee. She was quite literally something else in the water, and would swim far beyond those pools to compete in two Olympics, 1996 and 2000. Her name is Gabrielle Rose and she was going to join us for that cup of coffee.

In that phone conversation, Eric said something else that got my attention and I hope yours: 

“Drowning is racist.”

I remembered that the kids in those pools were white. I remembered playing with and teaching my kids in the water like my dad did with me, like my son does with his kids, getting them swimming lessons, making water an inviting thing.

I remembered things that so very many of us don’t remember at all, who fear water because they can’t swim, nor can their children, nor did their parents before them. They grew up with few if any options to swim safely or at all, generation after generation. Eric sent me a swimming pool full of statistics, and I’ll share a few here.

African-Americans are 5.5 times more likely to drown than white people, the fatal drowning rate of African-American children three times higher. 64% of African-American children can’t swim. 45% of Hispanic/Latino children can't swim.

Every day in the U.S. there are ten accidental drownings – 3,500 a year – and it’s the second leading cause of death among children 1 to 14.

And all of that, everywhere and especially here, is preventable.

So we had that cup of coffee. Gabrielle now lives on the west coast, but she heads the Rose Foundation and she’s doing something serious about swimming in her hometown. She’s helping to build the Mike Rose Natatorium in her dad’s honor – a planned world-class aquatic center on the U of M campus and part of a community-wide effort to get more people in and out of the water safely.

Part of that is Memphis Tiger Swimming. Eric is on that board and his daughter, Claire, has been swimming there for ten years, one of those serious swimmers I mentioned.

Part of that is Splash Mid-South, formed in 2008 after two African-American teens tragically drowned. The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change works as a partner with the program evaluating improved swimming skill and the effectiveness of swim lessons provided by community partners. Since swim lessons began, over 5,000 children have taken lessons or completed the water safety instruction program.

Part of that are the YMCA’s and other aquatic programs around the city.

Part of that should be our city and county leaders in improving existing pools in low-income neighborhoods and building more, and funding lifeguard training.

Part of that is all of us – you – by checking out and supporting any or all of the above. Go online, give somebody a call, have a cup of coffee.

Of all the things Nora and I worried about raising our kids, drowning was never a real threat. It is far too real for far too many of us. 

I’m a Memphian, and we should jump right in. The water’s fine.

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