Barry Saunders

Don’t become a statistic, learn to swim – Saunders

Even gold medalist has to take YMCA swim test

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Kirsty Coventry visited the Harris YMCA in Charlotte on Thursday. Before she could join a group of children on the outside waterslides, she was required to pass a swim test. Coventry, 32, trains with SwimMAC Team Eli
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Two-time Olympic gold medalist Kirsty Coventry visited the Harris YMCA in Charlotte on Thursday. Before she could join a group of children on the outside waterslides, she was required to pass a swim test. Coventry, 32, trains with SwimMAC Team Eli

We in North Carolina are proud of the recognition the state receives for its high ranking in livability. Who wouldn’t be?

Nobody will be hoisting celebratory flutes of Champipple over the state’s high ranking in die-ability, though.

Die-a- what?

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission in 2014 ranked us seventh in the nation among states with the most drownings. Three people drowned in the Triangle on Sunday alone.

Drownings, unfortunately, seem to be something many of us view as an inevitable part of summer. They aren’t inevitable, Dr. Cecil Gordon told me, but they are “as heartbreaking as the murders we see all too often in our community.”

Indeed, the sorrow and grief you see displayed by the loved ones of a person pulled from a lake or pool is just as intense, the loss just as permanent, as that of someone who has died from an act of violence.

Gordon, from Hamlet, is former chairman of the diversity committee for USA Swimming and will be assigned as a starter for the Olympics in Rio – the first African-American ever chosen from the United States.

Right on. He, though, like too many African-Americans, didn’t take naturally to swimming.

“I didn’t learn to swim until my freshman year at UNC, because it was a requirement in order to graduate,” he said. “The most important courses I ever took were typing in high school and swimming at Carolina.”

He taught both of his children to swim at age 4, and his son, Clifton Gordon, a member of UNC’s swim team for four years, now teaches the sport in Hillsborough.

Statistics compiled by the USA Swimming Foundation show that 80 percent of all drowning victims are male and that African-Americans and Hispanics are three times more likely to drown than whites.

The CPSC statistics, compiled by the USA Swimming Foundation, show that 80 percent of all drowning victims are male and that African-Americans and Hispanics are three times more likely to drown than whites. Nine to 10 people drown each day on average, he said.

The rate of drownings is so high for males, Gordon said, because “most boys, when they get into water, think they can swim. They’re more likely to take risks. When they get into trouble, the first thing they do is panic.”

Say, wait a minute. Was he on vacation with me?

Several years ago, I – checking the boxes on those two most vulnerable groups – almost became a statistic while in Cancun alone. I thought I could swim, and I panicked upon realizing I couldn’t.

You see, even to an unabashed aquaphobe such as I, the placid water where we’d been taken to go snorkeling looked cool and benign. Everyone else seemed to be having such effortless fun in it, so for a second I forgot that I can’t swim.

Funny thing, though: diving into the ocean reminds you very quickly.

I dived into the crystalline water and stroked a few unhurried, relaxed strokes before thinking the last thought of millions of formerly living people: Uh-oh.

Oh, sure, I could swim in Palisades Park pool in Rockingham or any other pool with five-feet-deep water when I know the edge is in easy reach, or when I could just stand up and walk to it. Realizing, though, that you are in the middle of the ocean with no edge in sight is a different, panic-inducing sensation.

“Once you panic in any situation,” Gordon said, “all bets are off because you don’t think rationally. You see stories all the time about people who’ve gone out to save someone” from drowning, “and their biggest challenge is getting that person to allow himself or herself to be saved. They’re grasping for anything, and they become a threat to the person trying to save them.”

I flailed and thrashed, which may be why the lifeguard, after leaping with alacrity from the boat, decided to first rescue the non-panicky flipper that had come off my foot. That’s when I kindly suggested, “Yoo-hoo, could you momentarily forget that flipper and come over here and save my life?” – or words to that effect.

When he finally hoisted my terrified and panicked self onto the boat, I was too grateful to tell him what he could do with that flipper.

I was greeted on-deck by another dude who looked knowingly at me.

“Same thing happened to me yesterday,” he said.

For the rest of the hours-long excursion, he and I – the only two black dudes on the boat – chilled on deck, sipping Mai Tais and pina coladas and, like Jimmy Buffett, nibbling on sponge cake, while everyone else swam and played among the fishes and colorful coral reefs. Although I vowed even while sinking like a can of tuna to learn to swim, for the rest of the week in the country, the only water I touched was in the shower.

If you can’t swim, don’t go out there, because I guarantee you you’re going to have a problem.

Dr. Cecil Gordon, chairman of the diversity committee for USA Swimming

I asked Gordon for some commonsense, life-saving instructions.

“First and foremost, know your limitations,” he said. “Turn around, don’t drown. If you can’t swim, don’t go out there, because I guarantee you you’re going to have a problem. You need to have on a life preserver. That’s critical. And even if you know how to swim, never swim alone, because you never know when something will happen and you’ll need help.

“You have to understand that just because it looks easy, it ain’t easy,” he said.

Halleluyer!

I vow this time, though, before summer is over, to call Gordon’s son for a lesson.

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