Heading into the Memorial Day holiday weekend, millions of Americans will go for a swim in the nation’s oceans, lakes, rivers and, of course, swimming pools.
But the Red Cross says that more than half of all Americans (54 percent), and two-thirds of African-Americans (67 percent), cannot meet a basic set of water safety standards.
Simply put, most Americans can’t swim.
“Our goal is to cut drowning rates by 50 percent over the next three to five years,” Connie Harvey, director of the Red Cross' Aquatics Centennial Initiatives, told Yahoo News during a phone interview.
To achieve that goal, the Red Cross is launching training programs in 50 cities across 19 states, reaching an estimated 50,000 individuals. It has also launched a swim app for families that want to track their progress as they learn to swim.
Today’s drowning statistics might not sound that alarming on the surface: just 1.3 deaths out of every 100,000 individuals. But that translates to around 3,600 drowning deaths each year, “the vast majority of which are preventable,” Harvey said. That works out to about 10 people who die while swimming each day.
Harvey says the initiative will largely focus on areas in the Sun Belt, where warm weather means more people are swimming either in natural bodies of water or in swimming pools. But they also plan to focus on other cities facing barriers to entry including financial obstacles, or what Harvey described as a simple but powerful “fear of the water.”
A hundred years ago, the scene was very different. In 1914, Americans were just beginning to embrace swimming as a recreational activity. However, almost no one knew how to swim and lifeguards were virtually nonexistent.
When the Red Cross launched its first nationwide aquatics awareness initiative, drowning rates were nearly 10 times higher than today, 10.4 per 100,000.
The Red Cross turned to a man named Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow, “the amiable whale,” to educate swimmers around the country. Within a few years, the organization created the first national lifeguard program, and drowning rates were eventually cut in half after Longfellow’s “waterproof America” plan was implemented.
But the challenge is arguably greater today. That’s because most people aren’t just bad at swimming, they actually think they are really good at swimming.
Eighty percent of those surveyed by the Red Cross described themselves as capable swimmers, including 84 percent of whites and 69 percent of African-Americans. The Red Cross defines “water competency” in five categories: being able to swim 25 yards to exit the water, being able to step or jump into water over your head, exiting a pool without using a ladder, floating or treading water for one minute, and making a full circle in the water to find an exit.
That criteria may not sound overly challenging, but Harvey says a surprising number of swimmers can’t perform any of the tasks, which she describes as “far more challenging once you get out of the swimming pool and into a natural body of water.”
“It’s about knowing where to swim and when to swim,” Harvey said. “But also what to do in the event that something goes wrong, teaching people how to perform CPR or perform a rescue without putting themselves in danger.”
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