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Safe Swimmers: Olympic Swimmers Start with Lessons: August 1, 2012

Before they were ‘big fish,’ Olympic swimmers started out learning to swim like everyone else. Health and safety experts say it’s a lesson in life, and a timely one as Southwest Florida is outpacing last year in the number of children drowning.

Before any Olympic swimmer can make a splash, they had to learn the basics. Michael Phelps, the man with the most gold medals, kicked off his career with swimming lessons before a vacation. And gold medalist Cullen Jones nearly drowned when he was five. He overcame his fear by learning to swim.

“Swimming is the one sport that could actually save a life. Save your life or save somebody else’s,” says Michele King, director of the Child Advocacy Program at Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida.

The message has never been so important. This year has been deadly in Southwest Florida.

“Since January, the Children’s Hospital has already treated 17 children who’ve nearly drowned and we had three children who died,” says King.

You’re never too old or too young to learn to swim safely. Red Cross-certified instructors are teaching babies as young as six months old.

“We’re teaching them to hold their breath, submerge their face. Really being comfortable sets the stage for instructional lessons.  If the child’s not comfortable in the water, they’re not going to learn in the water,” says Christie Davis, the aquatic facilities supervisor for the North Fort Myers Community Pool.

It’s no substitute for adult supervision and barriers of protection like locks on door, pool gates and alarms.

“And for families with swimming pools and children, we really do recommend that the adults learn CPR,” says King.

In the state of Florida, drowning is the number one cause of death for children under four.

“I’ve seen children that have taken our water safety programs, and then been put in a situation where they have needed to call upon those skills,” says Davis.

So for pleasure, sport or survival, learning to swim is a jumping off point.