By Analisa Romano
Viva Colorado
Updated: 09/02/2011 12:03:32 AM MDT

As Colorado families stow away the sunscreen and beach towels, they face the reality that summer swim season is over. But for many Hispanic children, it never began.

While 6 out of 10 Caucasian kids will hang up their suits knowing how to swim this September, the same proportion of their Hispanic and African American peers can only navigate the shallow end of the pool, according to a study commissioned by USA Swimming.

More Hispanic children visit Denver pools every day, said Lisa Perry, the aquatics supervisor for Denver Parks and Recreation, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can swim.

“The interest and coming to the pool and enjoying it’s one thing,” Perry said. “When it comes to showing up for swimming lessons, there’s a disparity there.”

Academics from the University of Memphis who conducted the research for USA Swimming held focus groups in Denver and five other “regionally diverse” cities, said Carol Irwin, a professor of physical education and contributor to the report.

In addition to 58 percent of Hispanics who were found to have little or no swimming ability, that statistic jumps to 70 percent for African American children, according to the USA Swimming report commissioned in 2010.

Although swimming is often considered a recreational sport, Irwin said low swimming skills are a serious problem.

Nationally, minority children drown at three times the rate of white children, she said. Fatal and nonfatal drowning is a public health issue.

And as minority swimmers are left out of the race for scholarships and aquatic jobs, the opportunity structure grows more disproportionate, Irwin said.

Out of all of the USA Swimming Club teams across the nation, which cultivate future Olympic competitors, Irwin said just 4 percent of those swimmers are Latino.

“Some Hispanics might be incredibly suited to swim, but they never get the chance,” she said.

The Memphis study found

Jestina Gomez, 7, practices floating with swim instructor Alesha Vertrees at the Southwest YMCA in Denver. (Manuel Martinez/Viva Colorado)
that Latinos usually skirt around the pool instead of stepping in primarily because of their culture.
Parents tend to pass down a fear of water to their children, Irwin said. More than a third of the Hispanic and more than half of the African American children surveyed in Denver said they did not feel their parents encouraged them to swim.

If parents did not fear the water, Irwin said they often responded that they do not consider swimming a necessary life skill.

“They would rather put their child in martial arts or basketball,” Irwin said.

Patricia Borrego, an adult member of the Southwest YMCA in Denver, said she is comfortable standing and wading in the water, but she gets anxious about moving too far toward the deep end.

“I need to put myself in a swim class,” she said.

Borrego took her niece, Justina, to take classes for the first time this summer because she was adamant about wanting to learn how to swim, Borrego said.

“She loves being in water, and we want her to be safe,” Borrego said of her niece, whose only fear of the water was floating on her back.

Laurian Horowitz, owner and instructor of Colorado Life Lessons, which offers private and small group swim classes for kids and adults, said her adult students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, although their water-fearing stories are similar across the board.

“They either never got the opportunity to try swimming because their parents were afraid, or something happened when they were a child, and it has taken 30 years for them to try it again,” Horowitz said.

From there, the cycle continues, she said. “It really goes back to the parents.”

Horowitz said recreational pools are a great place to enjoy the water, but kids often don’t know how to swim and receive no instruction on how to behave safely around the water.

“It just takes one time for something to happen,” Horowitz said, such as an accidental slip into the deep end of the pool, and then most people refuse to don the swim suit again.

Perry said she thought many Hispanics don’t sign up for classes at Denver Parks and Recreation because of the language barrier. While their pools have signs and brochures in both Spanish and English, Perry said they often lack qualified Spanish-speaking instructors and lifeguards.

Few Hispanics with the qualified swimming skills apply for the job, but lifeguards are good about picking up Spanish phrases to communicate pool safety, Perry said.

Heath Kohler, aquatic coordinator at the Southwest YMCA, said most instructors there teach with gestures and physical demonstrations.

About 40 percent of the clients at the Southwest YMCA are Latino, said aquatic director Correen Cool.

Cool said she noticed more than half of her Hispanic students have expressed some degree of fear in their first swim class but they quickly learned to overcome it.

The real challenge comes in maintaining Latino students long enough for those skills to stick with them, Cool said, which is why, despite the YMCA’s high Latino attendance, the swim team has few Latino members.

Most parents in the Denver focus group of the swim study said paying for classes was not a deterrent factor, Irwin said, although they would prefer if they were more affordable.

Of the Latino kids taking swim classes at the YMCA, Cool said about half of the families accepted a scholarship to help pay for classes, which the YMCA offers on a sliding income scale.

While many in the focus groups were aware of the scholarships available through the YMCA, Irwin said undocumented immigrants did not want to divulge their financial information out of anxiety about revealing their migrant status.

Irwin said the affluent Latinos she interviewed still expressed restraint at the idea of allowing their children to jump in the water, when cost was not a concern.

“Fear really trumps a lot of economic issues,” she said.

Irwin said many parents in the study offered their own suggestions on how to encourage Latino families to sign up for swim classes.

The focus groups thought of incentives, from some type of reward after a child has completed all of his or her swim lessons, to a discount for signing up multiple children at one time, Irwin said.

A Boston woman Irwin interviewed said she had received counseling on motherhood through the Women, Infants and Children program, but the counseling didn’t prompt mothers to expose their children to water and swimming skills early on.

Frank Lavenson, a former Broncos player, said he was shocked upon reading the percentage of minorities that can’t swim.

He decided to use his business, Colorado Vault and Safe Deposit Box Company, as a means to raise money for the YMCA scholarship program, although he said the cost of classes is only half the battle in getting minorities into the water.

Lavenson, who is black, said the cultural barrier will be the hardest one to break.

He said the best way to end a generational fear of swimming is an effort from the community and especially within the school system.

“It would help if schools would be an avenue in terms of education,” Lavenson said. Swimming is a life skill that children should not have to ask to learn, he said.

For the past three years, Cool said the Southwest YMCA aquatics program has tried something of the sort.

The center partnered with a gym teacher in Denver Public Schools to offer a swim class once every week as a part of third and fourth graders’ gym class.

“Those kids that are afraid of the water, they’re swimming by the time the school year has ended, and they’re more confident,” Cool said. “A partnership with schools would really help.”

Perry said Denver Parks and Recreation does educational outreach to the Latino community too, through recruiting efforts at high schools and job fairs seeking lifeguards.

“A lot of kids don’t know how to swim, but we still show them what it takes to pass the lifeguard test,” Perry said.

She said just exposing kids to the possibility of the job sometimes encourages them to consider taking up the sport.

Lee Ragon, an aquatics instructor for Denver Parks and Recreation, said he believes the Latino fear mentality is changing.

With Hispanics making up the majority of visitors to Denver pools, he said it only makes sense that the number of Hispanic lifeguards and Latino kids competing on neighborhood swim teams is growing.

“They are exceptional swimmers,” Ragon said.

He sees both parents and kids enjoying the pool every day, he said. “The parents might have a fear of drowning, but the kids sure don’t.”