Fit to Play with Jim Johnson: Where’s the pool?

  • Jim Johnson

Published: 7/3/2023 2:53:23 PM
Modified: 7/3/2023 2:50:10 PM

Like most youngsters, I spent my summers at the community pool. Our pool was fairly large but had no filter, so the pool was drained and filled every four days. This made things interesting, as the water was different every day. On Day 1 we found beautiful, clear water but cold from deep-water wells. Day 2 was just right. By the afternoon of Day 3 it was cloudy and warm. Day 4 — don’t go. The pool was a great communal experience.

I became a lifeguard when I was 16. It was a good summer; I made seven non-dramatic rescues, most in shallow water. I also met a 16-year-old girl who became my wife nine years later. Later, I became an aquatics specialist, coaching, teaching, and working as a survival swim instructor. The nation is suffering a shortage of lifeguards. Pools and beaches close because there is no supervision. Is it because there are not enough good swimmers? Over half of the population either cannot swim or help someone else.

Recently, the nation riveted on the ill-fated rescue of five individuals in a deep-water submersible. Approximately 70 individuals died from drowning in the U.S. that week. About 3,400 Americans die each year from drowning. Our water safety record is poor. Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for 1-4 year olds and in the top five for older children. Children often die in their home pools. You’d think they could swim, but the problem is that most children don’t actually swim, they float. Air mattresses, noodles, and tubes surround most pools. I watched some little girls wearing swim wings, so lathered with sunscreen you can’t pick them up. Without the wings, they wouldn’t have a chance in deep water.

Swimming is one of the most popular activities for children, but we rarely teach them to swim. We buckle them in the car, make them wear bicycle helmets, but often leave swim safety to others. Simply taking them to a pool is not enough. Swimming lessons are difficult to find so parents need to get in the water with them and do it early. Get rid of all the accessories. Children have to earn the right to use goggles, snorkels, and any device you can buy on the swimming aisle at Walmart. Learn to swim first.

Forget traditional swim strokes. The goal of early swimming is comfort and mobility. Young children easily swim underwater so reinforce that. Challenge them to open their eyes. Put them on your back while you porpoise dive underwater. Take them into deep water and let them swim short distances to the side. Have them jump in and swim back.. They should be able to jump in without holding their nose. Children are very buoyant and float easily. Many swim teachers try to get children to float on their backs. Don’t do it. Have them float face down and recover their footing. Teach them to float on their stomachs and raise their heads to take a breath. Be firm but reward them.

People with home pools usually put up a fence. While fences work, mistakes happen, locks are forgotten. The real answer to safety is proficiency in the water. Drowning can be quick and silent. One summer when directing the waterfront at a large camp, I organized a counselor swim. One counselor, a novice swimmer, was practicing swimming from the deep-water float to the dock, a distance of about 15 yards. I was watching him, turned away for a few seconds, looked back and he was two feet underwater, motionless. We quickly revived him but all of this took only about 20 seconds.

Swim practice doesn’t stop just because someone can swim across the pool. That’s not enough; don’t be satisfied with the minimum. Older children tend to drown in more open waters like beaches and rivers. Good swimming skills are required, as moving water is dangerous. No swimmer is more powerful than moving water.

I spent a summer in Germany as an exchange student. That’s where I observed what pools should be. Instead of surrounding them with concrete and chain link fences, German pools were located in large meadows. We would spend the day picnicking and swimming. Children played soccer and gymnastics on the grounds. So take your child to the pool if you can find one. Neither Northampton nor Greenfield have an outdoor public pool. The Look Park pool was filled to host wedding receptions. Blanket picnics are not allowed in Look Park.

Jim Johnson is a retired professor of exercise and sport science after teaching 52 years at Smith College and Washington University in St. Louis. He comments about sport, exercise, and sports medicine. He can be reached at


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