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  • Writer's pictureBPB



The death-by-drowning of Olympic skier Bodie Miller's 19-month old daughter, Emeline, has captivated our week's headlines and our nation's hearts. And yet these tragedies occur daily, their ferocity seemingly ratcheting up in summer. Though in reality, drownings don't declare a season.

Below is an early draft of a story that I wrote for Newsweek about 3 years ago. It was never published in this form. While the executive editor loved the piece, a young, egocentric editor I was assigned to wanted me to to just highlight the new technology and lose the old school--and pertinent--advice, history, anecdotes (and Olympic heft from Cullen Jones--who spoke about his childhood and his mother's fear of the water.) I'm glad I was able to recover it.  

So here you go, something to think, act and glide on ... because sometimes BAREFOOT PALM BEACH dives deep into issues that affect us all. We believe it's imperative to raise one another up.

Thanks for reading.

Our thoughts, prayers and actions are with all of those affected by drowning tragedies.


With love, BPB

We spend our first days lollygagging in our mother’s in-ground pool, more amniotic than chlorinated. Yet, as soon as we take our first breath, fearcoolly seeps in. Fear is the biggest documented reason why more than a quarter of adult Americans don’t swim. And it is passed down—like a gene mutation— to our children, so that today roughly half of all US kids lack basic swim skills. “It becomes a legacy affair, like generational poverty,” says Dr. Carol Irwin, professor of Health and Sports Sciences at the University of Memphis. Perhaps one of the most heart wrenching examples is that of DeKendrix Warner. He was 15-years old when he slipped into Shreveport, Louisiana’s Red River, five years ago. Six teens—family and friends— jumped in to save him. None could swim. The adults that were with them, also could not swim. A bystander saved DeKendrix. The other teens drowned, with adults staring in horror.

Overall drowning rates have reportedly declined in the last decade, but each day ten Americans are lost to drowning. Children under five have the highest drowning rates, with most of these accidents occurring in a pool.  Yet toddlers have drowned in barely filled bath tubs, toilets and 5-gallon buckets. And while each summer brings an uptick in the number of deaths, “drowning is a year round killer,” says Dr. Francesco Pia, a leading drowning prevention expert. “It’s not just in swimming pools, non-swimming (hunting and fishing) and boating accidents account for almost 2/3 of yearly drownings.” Unlike the big-budget Hollywood films of arms thrashing and high-pitched cries for help, experts say drowning is harrowingly silent. That’s why organizations, politicians, and parents are lending their voices—through social media, community programs, legislation, and new technological applications—to reverse the death tide.

Males and minority kids are disproportionaltely plagued by drowning. Eighty percent of all victims are male, according to the CDC. Experts believe it’s because males are more prone to risky behavior. The CDC also reports that African Americans between the ages of 5-14 drown at three times the rate of their white peers. A University of Memphis and USA Swimming Foundation study looked at the swimming ability in six urban U.S. markets and found that roughly 40% of Caucasians, 60% of Hispanics and 70% of African American kids cannot swim. But those numbers are slowly changing. In the last ten years, USA Swimming—the national governing body of the sport— has seen a 55% jump in the number of African American membership and a 70% increase for Hispanics. Just this spring, three African Americans swept the podium at the women’s NCAA collegiate 100-m relay championship for the first time. Then there is Cullen Jones, 31, an African American Olympian who broke a world record for the 400m freestyle relay in Beijing (2008) and won two medals in the last Olympics. When not training, Jones is a prominent fixture on USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splashnational tour, helping minority kids get interested in his sport. “Growing up, all the kids in my neighborhood played basketball or football,” says Jones, “Swimming wasn’t something we did. It was different.”

When Cullen was five, he almost became a differentkind of statistic. Falling off an inter-tube in a New Jersey water park, he almost drowned. A lifeguard swooped him up and preformed CPR. Jones’s mother, who herself could not swim at the time, immediately signed her son up for lessons. “It only took half a second for me to go under—in a park crawling with lifeguards and adults,” says Cullen. “It was quiet, scary … I can still visualize it.”

Swimming has always been on mankind’s bucket list. In the rabbinical teachings of the Talmud, fathers must teach their children the Torah, a trade, and the crawl stroke. A study published in the Journal of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine concluded that “participation in formal swimming was associated with an 88% reduction in the risk of drowning in children under five.” That’s why some legislators are pushing to get every kid signed up. A few years ago, Minnesota was on the cusp of becoming the first state to require compulsory swimming education in its public middle schools, under a mandate introduced by state Senator Jeff Hayden and Representative Karen Clark. The mandate was shot down. “Something is wrong when so many urban kids are drowning in a state with 10,000 lakes and the Mississippi river,” says Hayden.

Abroad, compulsory swimming education is already being embraced. In countries such as Belgium, Austria, the UK, Germany and Japan, varying degrees of swim instruction are integrated into the public school curriculum. Many of these countries also report lower per capita drowning rates when compared to the United States. In Australia, there is a massive grass roots political movement to teach swimming in primary schools. In Bangladesh—where drowning accounts for almost 50 deaths a day— the government just passed legislation requiring lessons in schools. So why is the United States still on the sidelines?  “Legislators need to understand that it’s a life skill,” says Irwin. “It’s like learning to cross the street properly.” For now, instruction has been the burden of local communities and national organizations. In 2009, on the heels of a two tragic deaths in her Memphis community pool, Irwin helped launch a swim program for only $25. “We needed to charge so the community would value it,” says Irwin. “Today we’ve taught 5,000 kids how to swim.” In 1999, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz helped launch SWIM Central, a Broward County, Florida program. “We’ve brought swimming directly into the school day and provided water-safety instruction to more than 250 elementary schools, summer camps and daycare centers,” says Wasserman Schultz. More than 500,000 kids have participated so far, starting as young as four. In North Carolina, various YMCAs bus second graders—during the school year—for a week of free swim lessons. “The goal is to teach all second graders,” says Cameron Corder, CEO of Cleveland County YMCA. “We want to eradicate drowning like we did polio.” Three years ago, the American Red Cross began a campaign to cut drowning rates by fifty percent in fifty cities over the next three to five years.

Individuals have also taken the charge. Nadina Riggsbee is perhaps the nation’s most prolific swim safety parent. At 79, the founder of The Drowning Prevention Foundation hasn’t stopped her personal battle of lobbying the government for tighter pool safety requirements. In 1978, her kids snuck out into the pool while under the care of a sitter. Her two-year old daughter drowned, while her 14-month old son survived. “At 38, he is the oldest living, non-fatal drowning victim,” Riggsbee told me four years ago. Her son is severely brain damaged. “The emotional and financial toll of a near drowning accident costs our society millions of dollars a year.”  In 1984, Riggsbee pushed to pass the nation’s first swimming pool fencing law in her district of Contra Costa County, California. In 1996 Riggsbee championed the California State Swim Act, setting standards for swimming pool safety in homes, requiring pools be equipment with at least one drowning prevention feature such as an isolation fence, pool cover or alarm. For her part, Wasserman Schultz, with the Graeme Baker Act in 2007, set federal safety standards for pool and spa drain covers. The law is named after the 7-year old granddaughter of former Secretary of State James Baker, who drowned when she was trapped in the suction of a hot tub drain. “We need even more legislation to halt this epidemic,” adds Riggsbee.

But some parents aren’t willing to wait in the lazy-river legal process. They’re bringing high-tech solutions to market. As an emergency room physician, Dr. Graham Snyder has treated countless drowning victims. He finally had enough. Eight years ago, he set out to design the SwimSafe band. It consists of a lightweight necklace and portable hub that together let out a series of graduated alarms and strobe lights when a swimmer is submerged for a predetermined time. The system works on radio frequency and the bands are customizable for non-swimmers (alarms go off almost instantaneously) to older teens (who may be underwater for up to a minute). “The SwimSafe band does not replace lessons or supervision,” says Snyder. “It is for use in monitored swim situations, where people are already on alert and can fix a potentially dangerous predicament.” North Carolina’s Cleveland County YMCA and Raleigh YMCA have used SwimSafe in their aquatics programs. A similar product is the iSwimband, invented by three Connecticut fathers whose childrens’ friend nearly drowned in a pond at camp. The victim, underwater for just five minutes, survived with permanent brain damage. iSwimBand uses a battery-powered device that straps to goggles or a headband. Using blue tooth technology, parents download an app. A power ranger alarm sounds off on their PDA device if a child is in the water for a predetermined number of seconds. In 1999, the Safety Turtle wristband—a green, happy meal looking toy—debuted. It sets off an alarm the second a child’s wrist makes contact with water. Retailing for $150, it is aimed at the non-swimming toddler and preschool set. Other products include drones to help lifeguards get life preservers out quickly to potential sea victims. “These new technologies are exciting and have the potential of adding another layer of protection for both swimmers and non-swimmers,” says Pia. Yet, he cautions parents and lifeguards against falling into a “relaxed sense of supervision.”

The most important tool will always be learning to swim, adds Pia. And that includes adults, who drown more often than kids. “When I was growing up, my mom didn’t know how to swim,” said Cullen Jones. “But after I made it to the Olympics, she was kind of shamed into taking lessons. It wasn’t easy, but I’m proud of her progress.” USA Masters, the governing body for adult swimmers, specializes in teaching beginners. It also trains record-breaking athletes. Just ask Rogers ‘Tiger’ Holmes, who at 93 years old set two world-relay records for his age group. After a by-pass at 53, Tiger was told to start exercising. He hadn’t swam since college, but out came the Speedos. “If I hadn’t started again, my doctor says I would have died twelve years ago.” Tiger practices three times a week in Jacksonville, Florida, with his fellow relay team mates. “Gliding through the water allows you to exercise without hurting your joints,” he says. “Swimming is defying gravity.” And death. On a fishing trip to Costa Rica, Tiger rescued a man overboard, former Tampa Bay Buchaneer’s owner, Hugh Culverhouse.

As hemlines and pool covers retract this summer, consider a refresher course. Keep your eyes on the kids and off the iphones. Learn CPR, if you haven’t already. Wear those life jackets.  And visit iswimsafely.govto learn how to safeguard your backyard pool.

Two thirds of the Earth is covered in water: Isn’t it time we all dove in?


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