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Taking the plunge

Aquatics program helps Olympic swimmers and toddlers alike build skill and be safer in the water

April 25, 2011

Here’s a reminder as we head into National Drowning Prevention and Water Safety Month — you need to know how to swim, but knowing how to swim doesn’t equal knowing how to keep from drowning any more than knowing how to start a car equals knowing how to prevent an accident.

In fact, there’s always some risk of drowning when you’re in or around water. Last year in the U.S. alone there were more than 3,300 drownings, and four times that number of people were treated at hospitals for water related injuries. Worldwide, about a million people drowned.

Kim Tyson, Peter Oliver, Don Crowley
Left to right are Kim Tyson, Peter Oliver, Don Crowley.

Because it’s common for us to get a little bit complacent and over confident when it comes to water safety, faculty and students in The University of Texas at Austin’s aquatics program spend a significant amount of time in Texas communities teaching -– and reminding — Texans of all ages how to stay safer when they’re taking a dip.

The program, headed by Don Crowley, Kim Tyson and Peter Oliver in the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, has joined almost two dozen service organizations to create the Central Texas Water Coalition, one of the most well-organized, active and comprehensive such coalitions in the nation.

The Coalition includes partners like the American Red Cross, U.S. Lifesaving Association, Lower Colorado River Authority, Texas Parks and Wildlife, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and Children’s Hospital of Austin. Working with it, the aquatics program not only educates thousands of Texans each year but also a national and worldwide audience.

“Even though drowning risk can’t be completely eliminated,” said Tyson, who’s a founding board member and past president of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, “you can reduce and manage it by increasing individuals’ water safety knowledge. We’re here to make sure as many people as possible are educated in safe practices.”

The pedigree of the aquatics program staff is quite distinguished, with Oliver serving as editor of the National Underwater Aquatics Instructor Association’s international magazines Sources and Dive Business Today as well as authoring several books on diving. He also has started training nautical archeologists how to safely search and navigate underwater finds like shipwrecks.

Tyson and Crowley work closely with lifesaving associations internationally to share information and set standards for lifesaving best practices, and Tyson recently represented the U.S. at the International Lifesaving Federation’s competition in Australia, where he won a gold medal in the lifesaving rescue competition.

In concert with the Central Texas Water Coalition, the aquatics program is an integral part of national pool and free water safety initiatives like the U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission’s “Pool Safely” water safety education campaign.

“The coalition’s purpose is to make water safety information so easily available and pervasive that just about everybody has an opportunity to see or hear it without an inordinate degree of effort,” said Crowley, who, in addition to being a faculty member is an American Red Cross instructor and volunteer and a U.S. Swimming and Diving coach with more than 25 years aquatic instruction experience. “One of our partners, the Austin American-Statesman, has a Swim Safe for Austin Kids initiative, for example, that teaches at-risk children in kindergarten through third grade basic swimming skills at Austin YMCA, apartment and city pools.

“Another initiative called ‘Nobody’s Waterproof’ focuses specifically on adults and encourages consistent adherence to basic safety habits like wearing a life jacket.

I don’t know that most people realize how many individuals -– and many parts of the world -– don’t have access to swimming pools. Not everyone grows up in an environment where swimming is the ‘normal’ thing to do and where there’s clean water to swim in or anyone to instruct you. Swimming may end up being something that only ‘the rich people’ learn to do and are able to enjoy.”

Although anyone can be at risk of drowning, the danger to children is especially high because they’re the most likely to be unable to swim and can drown in places that don’t, at first glance, seem dangerous.

What’s Your Water Safety IQ?

1. Children can drown in as little as ______ of water.

a) six inches
b) 12 inches
c) two inches

2. Among adults, _______ are at highest risk for drowning:

a) elderly individuals in the 65- to 80-year-old age range
b) males in the 18- to 34-year-old age range
c) pregnant females in their 30s

3. In which of these items or environments can a child not drown:

a) toilet bowl
b) bucket containing water
c) drain pipe containing water
d) demitasse cup

4. Each occupant of a personal watercraft, such as a jet ski, is required to wear:

a) a swimsuit
b) goggles
c) a life jacket

5. Drowning is the second-leading cause of unintentional, injury-related death for:

a) children one to 14 years of age
b) Europeans
c) residents of large urban areas

ANSWERS: 1. c; 2. b; 3. d; 4. c; 5. a

“It’s not that most parents or other adults who are watching over children aren’t paying close attention,” said Tyson. “Most drownings occur when there’s a predictable, momentary lapse of supervision and parents aren’t aware that the child has left the house, for example, and gained access to the swimming pool or another water environment. Drowning can occur extremely quickly — it only takes around 20 seconds to a minute for a drowning to happen. This is why homes with swimming pools, hot tubs and so forth need layers of protection that include pool fencing to separate the home from the swimming pool, pool safety covers, and pool and gate alarms to alert someone that the pool area’s being accessed.

“And children can drown in something small like a bucket that contains water. It’s only necessary that the face be submerged and for them not to be able to pull it from the water and breathe. They can drown in a toilet, falling in as they’re reaching for something they’ve dropped, or in a backyard blow-up wading pool or drain pipe. In fact, drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in children five and under.”

Because this vulnerable group is so large, the Texas Water Safety Coalition devotes much of its efforts to teaching children to swim, encouraging parents to learn to swim, teaching basic rescue skills and CPR to adults who are around children, and showing people how to make areas such as swimming pools, hot tubs or boats as safe as possible. Crowley and Tyson travel statewide and nationally, giving presentations to schools, community organizations, fitness centers, aquatic facilities, outdoor festivals and at water safety events.

“This has been a great year so far for the aquatics program,” said Crowley. “We were honored to sponsor the National Aquatic Safety Company’s International Safety School here on campus at the world famous Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swim Center. Representatives from aquatic facilities all over North America attended and learned about updated CPR and first aid procedures, as well as better ways to teach lifeguard skills, and our students worked on a project that helped them improve their critical thinking skills and become better at making decisions in the aquatic environment. We actually sponsor several events each year with various certifying agencies, like the American Red Cross and U.S. Lifesaving Association.

“And then a few weeks ago we were the hosts of this year’s April Pools Day, which is a large, really lively, fun event for the whole community. We held it at the Texas Swim Center as well, and it included all sorts of water safety demonstrations, presentations and materials that we handed out to the public. Our UT aquatics students dressed up in costumes for the event, and UT alum and gold medalist Ian Crocker was able to speak to the crowd -– Ian’s very committed to water safety.”

The event also featured presentations on pool, boat, stand up paddleboard and flash flood safety, and a mock drowning and rescue that were executed by Texas Swim Center lifeguards, EMS, the Austin Fire Department and a victim who was played by one of The University of Texas at Austin Lady Longhorn swimmers.

A staged mock rescue to educate students in the aquatics program about water safety
The aquatics program uses staged mock drownings and rescues to educate students in the program, as well as Texas communities, about water safety.

With all that the aquatics group does for Texas communities, it’s almost easy to overlook the excellence and scope of its academic program in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Education.

“We have undergraduate classes for everyone, from Olympic gold medalists to people who don’t yet know how to swim or float,” said Crowley. “Kinesiology majors, which include many of our campus athletes, take aquatics classes as part of the major, some non-kinesiology students take classes for fun, we have some people who are training for triathlons in our classes, and then we have our non-swimmers who are here to learn the basics.

“We train lifeguards, prepare water safety instructors and offer SCUBA certification, with the largest university SCUBA program in the nation.  We’ve formed an aquatic specialization program, too, which prepares students to set up or manage aquatic enterprises of all sizes. For that, we’ve already got internships arranged with SCUBA facilities and places like Seaworld.”

Because males in the 18- to 34-year-old age range are the highest risk adult group when it comes to drownings, the aquatics program and other coalition partners also are targeting the campus for water safety outreach efforts. According to Crowley, this demographic is at particularly high risk because, first of all, they’re often swimming in open water, and, secondly, young men can see themselves as invincible. There’s a greater chance they’ll take risks to save face with friends or mix alcohol with water fun.

“We focus on prevention as much as possible in the aquatics program,” said Tyson, “and one thing we’re constantly doing is encouraging students to take a swimming class at some point while they’re here working on their degree and not just to learn to swim, but to learn to swim well. We’ve even established a formal partnership with campus ROTC to screen its officer candidates and get those who need to develop a little bit better swimming skills into classes.

There’s always a risk of drowning, but following these tips can greatly reduce it:

  1. Never swim alone.
  2. Swim near a lifeguard.
  3. Stay close to others and to land or poolside.
  4. Be alert.
  5. Have appropriate safety equipment on hand.
  6. Train for and be educated on the water environment you’re in.

“Not too long ago, we had a student here on campus graduate with a Ph.D. in the sciences and one week after graduating he drowned at a nearby lake. That didn’t have to happen. It’s great –- and fun –- to take classes in racquetball or basketball, for example, but swimming’s the only sport that can save your life. Absolutely everybody should take a swimming class, and the sooner the better.”

This semester the aquatics program has over 700 students in 32 courses, including 52 people in the non-swimmers classes alone.

“I grew up in Florida,” said Crowley, “and learned to swim in a negative way –- bumped my head on the side of the pool, broke my nose on a diving board, got tangled up in seaweed plenty of times -– and I’ve always wanted to help others learn in a positive way. Now I get to do that for a living, teaching people to stay safe in and around the water. It’s not a bad way to spend your days…”

For more information, contact: Kay Randall, College of Education, 512 471 6033;
Banner photo of Caprice Crowley: Don Crowley