World Swim Day: Learning To Be Heroic

World Swim Day: Learning To Be Heroic

World Swim Day, founded in 2018 and sponsored by MySwimPro, is held on the fourth Saturday of October each year. The celebration aims to increase participation in swimming and promote water safety inclusive of geography, language, and skills.

When we consider how many people cannot swim – even to save their life – teaching people how to be water safe is critical. We estimate that approximately 2.3% of humans on the planet can swim for 500 meters, even in the case of life or death. That rough estimate means nearly 98% of humans cannot do so.

When a disaster hits a city or a country, politicians and governments are occasionally moved and sufficiently motivated to make fundamental changes while investing resources in order to avoid the same disaster in the future. Two shipwrecks on opposite sides of the world led the United States and Japan to instigate profoundly significant aquatic changes for the benefit of its society.

The fires aboard the General Slocum steamboat in New York Harbor led to the death of an estimated 1,021 of the 1,342 people on board – mostly girls, mothers and grandmothers – who died. So close to shore, yet 1,021 could not save themselves due to an inability to swim, especially unexpectedly on short notice when fully dressed.

While the outrage was immediate and the bodies of the victims washed up on the shorelines for days, the fact that the commonly-worn heavy clothing – even in the month of June – and that swimming was not taught during that era complicated a bad situation and made it much worse [see account in the New York Time here].

Steamer ‘Gen. Slocum’ June 15, 1904 above; North Brothers Island, East River, N.Y. below. Image ID: PS_MSS_CD8_109

As a result, local politicians and school administrators recognized swimming as more important than simply sport and fun.

Meanwhile, Annette Kellerman [shown below] had gradually made a name for herself with all kinds of channel and river swims from Australia to Paris, including the first attempt by a woman to swim the English Channel in 1905. Although she failed three times to successfully cross the Channel, she found her way to success in other venues. By 1907, the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Swimmer had taken up the cause for teaching girls and women to be taught how to swim. In court in Boston, Kellerman argued her position, “Don’t women have the right to save themselves from drowning when men aren’t around to protect them? Then how can we learn to swim wearing more material than you hang on a clothesline?

PR photo circa 1919 of Annette Kellerman showing her line of one-piece swimwear of the early 20th century. Courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress

Eventually, Kellerman help popularize swimming among her gender that culminated in many learning how to be safe in the water.

Decades later in Japan in 1955, the Shiun-maru ferry sunk after colliding with the Uko-maru ferry in a thick fog. Among the 168 people who died in the waters of the Seto Inland Sea, 100 elementary and junior high school students drowned. It was a call to action. The shocking deaths of so many schoolchildren led the Japanese government to start a nationwide program of building pools and teaching swimming in public schools. Because most schools did not have a swimming pool on campus before the 1960’s, Japan went on a nationwide pool building spree that resulted in the construction of pools at over 86% of elementary schools, 73% of junior high schools and over 64% of high schools. The established of so many new school pools also came with mandatory swimming instruction for the students. This construction and swimming education led to a dramatic – and expected – reduction in drownings nationwide.

As a result, Japan has very successfully decreased the number of its drowning tragedies with its nationwide focused swimming policy.

So while the drowning deaths of young and old are undeniably tragic in both New York and Japan, the result of these disasters led to the teaching of swimming that has long-term positive outcomes for those who do learn to swim.

Confidence grows as a result of being able to swim,” says Steven Munatones. “The natural fears of being near water or on the water go away. A whole new world of aquatics – whether that is simply enjoying a jump in a river or lake in the summer, or having a barbeque on the beach with your family, or competing in races – opens up for those who know how to swim. Furthermore, this ability to swim and stay afloat in all kinds of situation can give you the ability to save a human life. It is not often that people learn a skill that can be heroic – but learning how to swim is one of those lifesaving and life-giving skills.”

Photo above shows Robbie Esson jumping into Pacific Ocean from the Huntington Beach Pier in Southern California in a lifeguard practice.

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Steven Munatones