This city of water needs to become a city of swimmers.
Too many New Yorkers fear the water even though the five boroughs are surrounded by rivers, bays and the Atlantic Ocean. Meanwhile experts say an “epidemic” of drowning has taken hold across the nation. That lurking danger intensifies in the sweltering summer months as people seek refuge from the heat in pools and at the beach.
But a number of free and low-cost programs are trying to teach young New Yorkers how to enjoy — and respect — the water.
“We believe that swimming is an essential life skill,” said Elan Duensing, the principal of Asphalt Green’s Waterproofing program. The nonprofit currently provides 30 weeks of free swimming instruction to 2,700 kids from 47 city schools and charter schools in Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx.
“We hope that by the end of the year, the students we serve will be competent and confident deep water swimmers,” she said. “That’s what we’re aiming for, and it’s a lofty goal.”
It’s especially challenging since about 40% of the kids in the program have no prior swimming experience at all.
“There is a lot of fear involved and a lot of misconceptions,” Duensing said. “The first thing we do is teach kids how to be safe in the water and how water works.”
Olympic gold medal swimmer and sports commentator Rowdy Gaines has made it his life mission to get more people in the water.
Gaines, a board member of Asphalt Green, will emcee the annual “Big Swim Big Kick” on Saturday where hundreds of city kids get a chance to race in the Olympic-sized pool in its Upper East Side facility. The event is free and open to youngsters between the ages of 6 and 10.
“For me it’s very personal,” Gaines said. “Drowning is an epidemic in our country. It breaks my heart whenever I see a drowning happen because I know it could have been prevented.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were an average of 3,536 fatal unintentional drownings (not related to boats) between 2005 and 2014 in the United States.
The statistics for young children are even more chilling.
The CDC said about one in five victims are children 14 years old and younger. The highest rates of drowning are found in children between the ages of 1 and 4.
The racial disparities are also startling. CDC statistics show African-American children between the ages of 5 and 19 drown in swimming pools at rates 5.5 times higher than white children of the same age.
The city Parks Department also works with schools in the Swim For Life program to provide 10-week sessions for second- grade students during the school day. Currently 1,929 students from 54 schools are enrolled in that program.
The free Waterproofing program is funded through donations and money from the City Council.
Earlier this week, a group of second-graders from the Cultural Arts Academy Charter School in Brownsville, Brooklyn, came for their regular Waterproofing class to Asphalt Green’s spacious facility in Battery Park City.
The students were eager to show off the skills they had learned during the year, floating on their backs and diving to pick up rings from the floor of the pool – under the watchful eyes of several instructors and a lifeguard.
“The kids are always excited to come here,” said Craig Mossop, dean of student support at the school. “Many kids in lower income communities can’t afford camp and don’t get a chance to do something like this.”
Educators and athletes agree swimming is a confidence builder – especially for young children.
Kristian Daniel, 8, admitted he was a little nervous the first time he went into the pool at Asphalt Green.
“Now I like to go into the deep end,” he said proudly.
Classmate Dacota Porter said she was excited that she can float on her back and kick at the same time.
“My favorite thing to do in the pool is to go underwater and try to touch the ground,” she said.
The Waterproofing program also works with special education students, such as Meghan Farmer’s class from P.S. 94. Studies show children with autism are at higher risk of drowning.
But the benefits go beyond safety, Farmer said.
“There’s something about reorienting themselves in the water that brings out sides of their personalities that they don’t typically display,” Farmer said. “They love this program.”