Many teens don't know how to swim. A grassroots organization is trying to change that
In the summer, many Americans head to the pool or a beach to cool off and have fun. But many kids don’t know how to swim, especially in historically underrepresented communities. One New York City non-profit organization is working to change that, one lap at a time.
On a sunny spring day, a small group of teenagers are in the pool in the basement of a high school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Some of them are practicing blowing bubbles under the water, while one works on relaxing enough to float on her back. Others are advanced enough to do lap races.
Their teacher is another teenager, 17-year-old Carmel Renas. As well as being a high school student herself, Renas is a teacher with the New York City-based First Strokes. Their mission is to get teens in the water safely — and to try to remove the barriers to learning. First Strokes provides aspiring swimmers with goggles, swim caps and suits — and the lessons are all free.
“The water can be your best friend and your enemy,” Renas observes. “And we’re really working to have the water be students’ best friends. Slowly, they’re developing a relationship with the water.”
First Strokes knows that many teens and young adults would be embarrassed to learn to swim alongside little kids. So all the classes are exclusively for teenagers — and they’re taught by fellow teens. Renas, who’s a competitive water polo player, has been teaching with First Strokes for two and a half years.
She says learning to swim isn’t just for fun — it’s a public health issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning is the second leading cause of death among children.
Jeremiah Rogel, a First Strokes student, is an 18-year-old from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Rogel took some swimming lessons when he was a little boy but says he wasn’t comfortable in the water before.
“I definitely feel a lot more confident now,” he says when he emerges from his lesson. “I feel like I can swim a lot more and a lot better than I was earlier because now I know how to swim faster and I know a lot more techniques like cupping, diving, and breaststroke. I know how to do all that better.”
One of his swim classmates is 19-year-old Isaiah Torres from Manhattan’s Lower East Side. “I think I’d honestly do this for the rest of my life,” Torres says. “It’s kind of just become a hobby now. I kind of do it even when I’m tired or upset. I’ll go anyway, just to do it. I’ve just become a regular now.”
Learning how to swim is an intergenerational challenge, says Michelle Macy. She is a professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University and a doctor at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago. Macy led a study last year in Chicago that found many parents don’t know how to swim — and that situation is especially true in Black and Latinx communities.
“Less than 5% of our white population had never learned to swim,” Macy says. “With our Black population, about a quarter of them had never learned to swim. And for our Hispanic parents, it was up to a third.”
She says that the study also uncovered some encouraging results. “A good number of the kids — half to three-quarters of them — have been in some sort of swim lessons across all the different racial and ethnic groups. So we are seeing an increase in the swim skills of these kids, relative to their parents.”
Macy cautions, though, that there isn’t a simple solution. “For us to simply say, ‘We need to get more kids to take swim lessons,’ it’s much more complicated than that,” she says. “For example, if parents don’t have comfort around water themselves, they might not want to be in an environment where their kid is in the water, and then they need to be responsible for them.”
Meanwhile, according to the most recent statistics from USA Swimming, 79% of children from low-income families have low to no swimming ability.
Macy says a lot of parents never had the chance to develop swim skills when they were growing up — and many of their neighborhoods didn’t have access to public pools or lessons.
Carmel Renas says she sees this intergenerational issue with her students.
“A lot of our students are first-generation swimmers,” she says. “Their families have never swam and they have a fear of the water. We’re really working to have the water be a place that they’re comfortable and excited.”
Miriam Lynch is the executive director of the not-for-profit organization Diversity in Aquatics. They offer education and support efforts to increase water safety skills and aquatic activities in historically underrepresented communities.
Lynch says that even in areas that are lucky enough to have public pools, access to them is declining. There’s a labor shortage — there are not enough people signing up to work as lifeguards.
“If there are not lifeguards, pools are not opening,” Lynch observes, “and if pools are not opening, then we’re not doing water safety. So when we’re not having swim lessons, then we’re not progressing kids towards opportunities in aquatics. And then, if we’re not creating opportunities in aquatics, then guess what? We’re not creating more lifeguards.”
Lynch is also concerned that the current lifeguard shortage will lead to more kids and teens trying to swim in unsafe conditions. “Say I’m a kid and my local pool is closed,” she says. “I’m going to go to this creek down the street or a local beach with no lifeguard instead, somewhere that does not have supervision.”
Carmel Renas at First Strokes says their goal is to help reverse that cycle.
“Now some of our students are even working towards their lifeguard certification,” she says proudly. “They’re going to protect their peers in the water and be ambassadors of swimming and pools in their community.”
First Strokes has already branched out to Connecticut and Rhode Island, as well as offering classes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Renas and her fellow organizers are working on expanding First Strokes to serve teens nationwide — and get as many as possible safely into the water.