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Make swimming lessons mandatory

The spate of tragic drownings, seemingly almost daily, throughout New England this spring and summer has been unprecedented. Approximately 50 swimmers have lost their lives in Massachusetts alone so far up to the first week of July, culminating in yesterday’s (Tuesday’s) rescue of an 11-year old girl from the Merrimack River in Lowell, who remains in critical condition. The most well-known tragedy was the Worcester policeman who drowned trying to save a 14-year old boy on June 4th. And New Hampshire had 3 youthful tragedies in the same weekend at May’s close with the locations the Salmon River in Rollinsford and the Merrimack in Canterbury. Massachusetts has had the largest number so far in New England, but the problem is endemic throughout the region.

The sad part is that so much of these awful numbers are and always have been preventable. Our young people, starting around age 6 at the latest, should have easily-accessible places to go after school hours to take basic swimming lessons. I grew up in Charlestown, Mass, a borough of Boston. Back in the 1950s I and the rest of my little school chums made a beeline for the Charlestown Boys Club on Green Street the day after our 6th birthdays to join up and have our eyes opened to the cornucopia of athletic activities that existed within those walls. Basketball, wrestling, running, ping pong….you name it, they had it, making the place a real heaven and haven for this active little Townie.

But most importantly to me was the 60-foot swimming pool on the premises that offered 45-minute swims every hour on the hour 7 days a week for us eager youngsters. And formal swimming lessons teaching proper technique in all four major strokes (free style, back and breast strokes, and butterfly) on the weekends made sure that we didn’t grow up merely flopping in the water like ungainly seals….the allure of making the Boy’s Club Swim Team was enough to make us all develop our kicking and arm strokes. By age 8, I and a number of my chums were on the Team, had our own regular events that we specialized in, and could all swim like pint-sized fish. And those opportunities should exist for all of our youth.

Too many of our kids don’t have this good fortune, and many who do don’t take advantage of it. I’ve known numerous adults through the years who couldn’t swim, and would be in real trouble if they simply fell off a boat into deep water and had to traverse 10 feet to reach the boat’s side. This is wrong, just as wrong as if our young kids weren’t taught the English language, history and arithmetic to prepare them for adulthood. With ¾ of the earth’s surface being water, including fresh and salt bodies, and our propensity for rowing and canoeing, tubing, water skiing, etc. so high especially with our longer and hotter summers, it’s even more important to make us all more aquatically self-sufficient.

Free or at least inexpensive swimming lessons should be a de rigueur part of every boy and girls’ training, just as phy-ed and regular school subjects are. We have a plethora of Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs, public pools outside and inside as well as local ponds that can be used for the purpose. And one of the great things about being a competent swimmer is that this particular activity can be enjoyed for a lifetime, unlike tackle football and elite gymnastics.

Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts has recently allocated state’s funds for a state-wide “Learn To Swim” program at their YMCAs and other venues. In New Hampshire the American Red Cross supervises various swimming classes for pre-school, and there’s the SafeSplash program in Manchester. But this training has to become more widespread, as so many youngsters are falling through the cracks, only to become water-challenged adults. And with this year’s horrifying increase of these calamities it is imperative that kids and adults alike are educated to the fact that learning to swim may save your life someday. Or maybe even someone else’s.

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