YMCA tackles racial disparities in swimming, drowning rates

Swimming lessons
Swim instructor Rachel Bushy helps 6-year-old Yonis Geele float on his back while kicking Tuesday, July 2, 2013 during a lesson at the Emma B. Howe YMCA in Coon Rapids.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Minnesota struggles with large disparities between whites and minorities in a range of areas, from education to employment to incarceration rates. But there's another gap, and it's a matter of life and death: swimming ability.

The people most at risk for drowning are males, children between the ages of 1 and 4 years old, and minorities, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

At the YMCA in Coon Rapids, Adna Haruun, who is Somali, recently brought her three younger brothers from Blaine for swimming lessons. As Abdi, Warsame and Yonis, listened to instructor Rachael Bushy, Adna said the activity kept the 6, 8 and 10-year olds busy while also giving them a useful skill.

The family had a scary incident on vacation a couple years ago at a water park, with Abdi, the oldest brother, she said.

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"He went off a water slide that had like maybe 8-10 feet of water," she said.

"It was so fast, when I just blinked, I was at the bottom," Abdi added. "I was just walking at the bottom of the pool. A lifeguard came."

He said he was excited to be at the water park and thought he could handle the deep water, "but I really couldn't do it that much."


A few years ago, researchers teamed up with USA Swimming, the national governing body of competitive swimming, to find out why minorities weren't prevalent in swimming programs.

Lindsay Mondick, aquatics director for the Greater Twin Cities YMCA, helped researchers convene focus groups in the Twin Cities. She says the overriding reason minority parents gave for not allowing their kids to participate in swimming lessons, even if they were free, was fear.

"If a parent was very fearful of the water, they're not going to bring their child to the water because, one, they will have a fear that they won't be able to get in and help them. And then that translates to the child. So it's kind of a cycle that isn't ever fixed because that parent will never seek out resources to have them swim," she said.

Swimming lessons
Brothers Warsame, Yonis and Abdi Geele, left to right, listen to swim instructor Rachel Bushy describe their next drill Tuesday, July 2, 2013 at the Emma B. Howe YMCA in Coon Rapids.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Since 2007, the organization has taught water safety to about 10,000 children in the metro area, paid for by corporate and foundation grants. This summer, it's developing a curriculum that could be used at YMCAs across the country, Mondick said. The program is five lessons of 40 minutes each.

"It's not a true swimming lesson, where we're teaching them stroke refinement and stroke technique, but it's really about how to do you stay safe in the water? How do you recognize a safe environment whether it be a lake, a beach, a swimming pool, how do you identify a life guard, how do you ask for help?" she said. There are two basic outcomes: Swimmers are able to get on their back and able to kick to the side.

Mondick says most drownings don't happen in commercial pools but in home pools, or "brown water" -- lakes and streams. The YMCA emphasizes to parents how important it is to supervise, even at a beach or pool with a lifeguard. Drownings happen quickly and quietly. It can look like a child is playing.

But in addition to teaching important safety information, the YMCA wants children to embrace the fun of swimming, compete on swim teams and eventually lifeguard.

Prominent African American swimmers, like Olympic gold-medalist Cullen Jones, are also encouraging kids to swim. Jones recorded this public service announcement for USA swimming.

"Two children drown in the U.S. every day. I was almost one of them," he says in the PSA. "I did not start swimming because I wanted to win gold medals. I learned to swim because when I was 5 years old I almost drowned. Unfortunately too many kids in this country don't know how to swim."

Samuel Myers Jr., a professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, says the best way to prevent children from drowning is to encourage more children of color to join swim teams.

Competitive swimming in Minnesota is lily white, he said. In 2012, out of nearly 7,890 year-round athletes registered with USA Swimming in Minnesota, 16 were African-American. By drawing more children of color into the competitive swimming pipeline, "You're going to save a life by increasing competitive swimming because you're going to reduce drowning rates."

Later this summer, the YMCA will take its program out into low-income apartment complexes in Inver Grove Heights and Brooklyn Park, where there are older buildings, with swimming pools and kids. Instructors will teach residents how to stay safe, and perhaps find a lifelong sport.

USA Swimming/YMCA study: Diversity in Swimming

Minnesota Safety Council drowning statistics
Minnesota DNR statistics