They’re in the swim — for safety, and maybe a world record
The magic number was 24,874 — just one more person than last year — to set a new Guinness World Record for the largest simultaneous swimming lesson in the world.
Swimmers came out for free lessons at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Matteson Community Center, the Timber Ridge pool in Matteson, Hillcrest High School in Country Club Hills, and the Joliet Park District Splash Station Waterpark to join this international effort, the true aim of which is to prevent drownings.
From Abu Dhabi to Budapest to the Midwest, swimmers across five continents were out to demonstrate that there can be a “cure” for drowning — and it can be healthy, clean fun.
“Nine people drown every day, and (the top demographic) are African-American males under 14,” said Bob Welch, operations manager for Learn to Swim, which conducts lessons at the Matteson and Country Club Hills pools. “There’s 400,000 accidental drownings (worldwide) each year.”
The World’s Largest Swimming Lesson — Team WLSL — was created four years ago by the World Waterpark Association to promote the fundamental importance of teaching kids to swim. Organizers said drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental injury-related deaths for kids age 1 to 14.
To raise awareness to that fact, they were expecting 35,000 swimmers Tuesday morning — a 40 percent increase over last year. They weren’t expected to know until Wednesday whether a new record was set, after all the registrations were tallied, Welch said.
This is Welch’s second year of participating. There were about 80 swimmers at Hillcrest, 30 at the Matteson Community Center, and only a handful at the outdoor Timber Ridge pool, where the cool morning weather was likely a deterrent. About 35 gathered in Joliet.
Welch was hoping to get kids into the pool for the first time, to overcome their fear — and their parents’ fear — of the water.
That statistic of nine drowning deaths per day has not changed in five years.
“We have to reach the parents,” he said. “It’s a generational thing. If the parents can’t swim, and the grandparents can’t swim, they are afraid to bring their children into the water. Why go to the beach if no one can swim?”
One parent, Cody McCollum, of Matteson, was watching her daughter in the pool.
“It’s important to learn how to swim for safety reasons,” she said, admitting that her younger son — who watched from poolside — was afraid of the water.
Amani Houston, 17, of Matteson, came for her first lesson.
“My mom said I need to know how to swim,” she said. “I want to learn so I can teach others.”
Regine Winfrey, 16, of Matteson, has been taking lessons since she was 5, and now was learning tips on how to be a swimming instructor.
She wanted to learn to swim so she would not be afraid to swim with dolphins or the stingrays at the Shedd Aquarium.
“I so want to do that. I’ve always wanted to swim with the animals,” she said.
Swimming is a fun sport and, Welch said, the only sport that can save a life.
“Swimming can not only save your life, it can enhance your life. Just getting into the water is beneficial,” he said.
In a press release, Olympic gold medalist and Team WLSL spokesman Rowdy Gaines said, “Research shows participating in formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88 percent. Yet many kids don’t receive formal swimming and water safety training. Drowning is preventable, and the first step is insuring that every child learns to swim.”