By Charlie Keaton  | Wednesday, November 1, 2017

In its first decade, the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative provided millions of swim lessons to underserved children from all walks of life. Our nation’s drowning epidemic has been put on notice.


There is a kind of magic to the hum of a pool deck. The tone and tempo change, and at times the whole thing slips into controlled chaos, but the symphony of frenzied coaches and exhausted athletes pushing through the final laps of a long workout is oddly beautiful. It’s the sound of fond, lifelong memories being made.

Competitive and recreational pools have long been happy places for kids the world over, and rightly so. But for those who grow up without access to swimming lessons, danger hides in plain sight. Ten people drown in the U.S. every day, and children (especially those in minority communities) are at the greatest risk.

In 2007, with the world’s eyes fixed on the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games, the USA Swimming Foundation made water safety a top priority with the launch of its Make a Splash initiative. Through a curated network of local learn-to-swim programs, and later a national media tour headlined by some of the sport’s greatest champions, Make a Splash has already delivered $4.4 million in grant money to swim lesson providers in all 50 states. Hundreds of thousands of learn-to-swim scholarships have been provided at free or reduced rates to families in need. This summer, the Make a Splash total nationwide enrollment will top five million.

What a difference a decade makes.


At the dawn of Make a Splash, the national learn-to-swim landscape was rocky terrain. Many local providers had been doing great work in their communities for years, but a paucity of available resources and the general lack of public awareness long undermined the need for cohesive, large-scale growth. These pockets of successful programs tended to be isolated and underfunded. Some dipped into their own pockets, creating opportunities for as many children as possible while absorbing costs and asking more of their staffs. The cause was undeniable, but the challenges could overwhelm.

Tina Dessart is the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash Program Director, and brings more than 25 years’ experience as a coach, instructor, and owner of her own swim school. She knows all about the challenges that learn-to-swim providers face, but she warns that the need greatly outweighs the obstacles.

“Drowning is the leading cause of death for children younger than four, and it’s the second leading cause of death for children under 14,” says Dessart. “Swimming lessons alone can reduce the risk of childhood drowning by 88 percent. Once parents learn those numbers, they tend to take action.”

Making resources available to families of all backgrounds was an obvious place to start. Rather than overshadowing or competing with local providers, Make a Splash’s Local Partner program was designed to coalesce and strengthen their individual efforts, building a unified network in the process. Through this framework the USA Swimming Foundation could channel dollars and support directly to local providers and communities across the nation.

But Kim O’Shea, who preceded Dessart in overseeing Make a Splash’s programming efforts, remembers when convincing providers to take part was an uphill battle. “We really had to do some trust-building with swim school owners,” she says. “I think they were a little wary that we were going to take their kids, or take credit for what they were doing. One of the things I’m most proud of is that we were able to earn that trust — that we weren’t going to do anything to change them, or be an imposition, or take away from them, but rather support what they were doing and helping them grow.”


Given the impact the Local Partner program has had in its first decade, it isn’t hard to lose sight of its humble beginnings. A 2006 white paper from USA Swimming Executive Director Chuck Wielgus not only called attention to the issue of water safety, but spelled out the strategies for how to address the epidemic head-on. Those strategies included several Make a Splash cornerstones, including the creation of a nationwide network of local learn-to-swim partners, and the deployment of a large-scale public awareness campaign. 

Wielgus, who passed away in April, was in many ways the catalyst for a program that has gained momentum at every turn. From a single partner serving 120 children, Make a Splash has grown to include 850 learn-to-swim providers. By the end of 2017, its national infrastructure is on track to help serve more than one million children annually. And while the statistics are staggering, there’s a story behind each and every one.

Swim Gym, in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, is a decades-old, family-owned aquatic education school built on the idea that “the decision to enter a body of water must come after the knowledge of an exit plan.” In that vein, they offer learn-to-swim classes, fitn ess and health classes, training for lifeguards and water safety instructors, and a USA Swimming team. They even boast their own fundraising arm, H20s Foundation, which offers donors specific information on how their money will be spent, right down to the age of the children taking lessons and how many sessions they’ll receive.

For Jonathan Strauss, a director at Swim Gym, the mission extends beyond teaching kids to swim. “People take water, and water safety, for granted,” he says. “Parents should know that until they’re comfortable with their child crossing the street on their own, they shouldn’t be comfortable with their child going near water on their own. It has to be a part of their lives.”

Swim Gym is a textbook example of an organization with the desire, ability, and infrastructure to scale up its offerings to underprivileged communities. By tapping into the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash Local Partner grant money, they extend their reach and increase their impact on the community.

And while the Swim Gym model has proven successful, the Local Partner program is effective in part because of its flexibility. Eschewing a top-down, dogmatic approach toward curriculum or application, the program instead encourages ingenuity. Partners range from big to small, public to private, for-profit to non-profit, urban to rural. One long-time partner sends instructors to apartment pools in underserved communities, eliminating a common barrier of transportation.

And although the framework is careful to accommodate a variety of pedagogies, the vetting process is thorough. Dessart and her colleagues review processes for the hiring and training of staff, lesson structure (including session length, frequency, and overall pool time), and whether each program offers community water safety education or scholarship opportunities. They also provide general standards, guidelines, best practices — and, of course, funding. This year, the USA Swimming Foundation awarded another $403,000 to a nationwide tapestry of more than 114 Local Partners, allowing those providers to serve children who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Further support is available from the now-19 national organizations that comprise the USA Swimming Foundation’s Affiliate Coalition. One such partner, Goggles for Guppies, is a California non-profit that distributes donated swim equipment to underserved children across the country. Make a Splash Local Partners connect with Goggles for Guppies to request swimsuits, caps, goggles, and more, paying only the cost of shipping.

“As aquatic professionals, there’s a lot we can do by ourselves, but there’s a lot that we can’t do without help,” says Dessart. “To bring industry leaders together and form these types of relationships strengthens the resources we can provide to the kids, and to our Local Partners in those communities.”


The support and empowerment of boots-on-the-ground providers is a crucial element in the fight against the drowning epidemic — but it’s not the only one. Even for the wealthiest of families, if Mom and Dad never learned to swim, the odds of their children learning are a mere 19%. This means that without a widespread increase in basic public awareness, generations of families will continue to put themselves and their loved ones at risk.

To that end, in 2009 the USA Swimming Foundation launched the Make a Splash Tour presented by Phillips 66. So far the Tour has delivered some of the sport’s highest-profile Olympic athletes to more than 45 cities. The 2017 Make a Splash Tour recently stopped in Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale. While there, headliners Missy Franklin, Rowdy Gaines, and Cullen Jones led swim lessons, town hall meetings, and a variety of public events while spreading the water safety message to parents and children of all ages.

That commitment to community engagement is a central tenet of the learn-to-swim culture. Last year alone, more than 140,000 people participated in Make a Splash outreach events — most of which, in contrast to the national Tour, were produced and executed by Local Partners. By leveraging their affiliation with the USA Swimming Foundation, providers are able to attract new audiences and enhance their own brands while giving back to their communities in a meaningful way.

“I think our efforts at education and inclusion have been helped tremendously by addressing a broader spectrum of the population than just the kids who get in the pool and swim competitively,” says Ron Van Pool, a member of the USA Swimming Foundation Board of Directors. Van Pool has been involved with Make a Splash since it was little more than a seed of an idea, and he’s seen the power of its impact firsthand. “We are reaching out to diverse communities, becoming a part of those communities, and working with their youth to make them safer, healthier, and better in life.”


The story of Make a Splash, and to a larger extent the water safety epidemic itself, is told on scales both large and small.

In a macro sense, the statistics are jaw-dropping. The USA Swimming Foundation has commissioned three research studies since the inception of Make a Splash, all centered on swimming ability and participation. The most recent of these, released just this spring and conducted by the University of Memphis and UNLV, shows an overall 10% increase in swimming ability among youth — but there’s still a long way to go. It’s still true that 65% of all African American, 45% of all Hispanic/Latino, and 40% of all Caucasian children are unable to swim. In a country where someone drowns, on average, every two-and-a-half hours, this is serious cause for concern.

Those statistics, however, don’t paint the full picture.

2016 saw more than 900,000 children enroll in Make a Splash learn-to-swim programs, with the USA Swimming Foundation and its partners providing more than 87,000 total scholarships for those with the greatest financial need. Since 2009, grant money in excess of $4.4 million has been distributed to nearly a thousand local providers. Since 2014, more than 6,000 learn-to-swim outreach events have taken place all across the U.S.

In other words, there is reason for great urgency, but also for great optimism … because as powerful as the drowning statistics are, each number represents a real person with a story of their own. These are people — mostly children — who are at risk every day without realizing the true extent of their vulnerability.

Cullen Jones, a USA Swimming Foundation Ambassador with four Olympic medals to his credit, was enrolled in swimming lessons after nearly drowning as a five year-old. For him, the extent of the water safety epidemic was staggering — and personal. Those in need reminded him of the minority friends he grew up with in New Jersey, and their own attitudes toward the water. “I realized that they’re a part of these statistics. I’m thinking, ‘This is the problem, this is what we’re trying to fix.’ And I completely relate to it because I almost drowned. I was almost a number on a page.”

Becoming a world-class international athlete isn’t how most stories turn out, but it’s true that some participants discover an unexpected passion and go on to swim at the highest levels of competition.

Either way, taking steps to increase their own child’s safety is the responsibility of every parent. We put helmets on our kids before sending them off to ride bikes. We preach the importance of looking both ways before crossing the street. We spend small fortunes on car seats and strollers with more advanced features than a space shuttle. We do these things not for our own sake, but because we know they are important tools for reducing the risk of tragedy.

So if learning to swim is a fundamental life skill that reduces the risk of drowning by almost 90%, why don’t more families take steps to receive the education and access needed to protect their children?

Ten years in, Make a Splash has used grassroots programming, community partnerships, business networks, and major funding for local learn-to-swim providers to address that challenge head on. The early returns are rewarding, but the race is just beginning. Now is the time for the larger swimming community to climb up on the blocks and train their sights on contributing to a cause that is truly, deeply, life or death.

Swimmers, take your mark.


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