St. Paul’s adult swim program makes a splash with African Americans


When Oxford Pool in Saint Paul reopened as Great River Water Park in 2008, the lifeguards were constantly saving weak swimmers. According to Adam Zirzow, Aquatics Facility Supervisor, it was as if, during the two years the pool was closed, rather than take swim lessons at elsewhere, Oxford pools users just bided their time.

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“We probably had as many as twelve rescues a month,” said Zirzow. “People just didn’t realize their own limitations.”

A push was made to encourage parents to enroll their children in swim classes; the Friends of Oxford Pool awarded scholarships for free swim lessons to families in need. Today, according to Zirzow the rescue rate has dropped substantially.

Now, Zirzow hopes to make inroads with a group of non-swimmers often overlooked: adults and teens. Traditional swim lessons are geared for infants and children. This winter, Great River Water Park offered their first adult/teen beginner swimming class.

“In the past, our classes were strictly for kids,” said Zirzow. “But we had all these teens and parents saying they wanted to learn.”

When the program began, Zirzow wasn’t sure any adults would come out of their shell and admit they couldn’t swim. However, the program has proven its value. Enrollment numbers for the spring adult/teen class doubled from the winter session.

Although open to any adult or teen needing swim lessons, the program has resonated mostly with Africans and African Americans.

“I’m learning to swim because my children want me to be in the water with them,” said Bizuwork Legesse, mother of two children. “They are going to be happy when I can swim with them. It will be more fun.”

Back in Ethiopia, Legesse noted, boys routinely learned to swim in the local rivers. However, girls rarely learned because of their need to be clothed in public. She is pleased she now has the opportunity to learn as an adult.

Legesse is also part of the largest demographic of non-swimmers–people of color. A two-part study commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation in 2008 and 2010 concluded almost 70 percent of African American children and nearly 60 percent of Hispanic children have little or no swimming ability. That compared to 40% for Caucasian children. Also, 91% of children who cannot swim have non-swimming parents. The study surveyed parents in six urban communities including Minneapolis/Saint Paul.

According to Centers for Disease Control, nationally the unintentional drowning rate for Blacks between ages 15-50 compared to their White peer group is almost 40% higher per 100,000 people. In Minnesota, it is even higher; Blacks drown at three times the rate of Whites. The high drown rate for African Americans makes learning to swim is a matter of survival.

“Drowning is a totally preventable accident,” Zirzow said.

The new swim class is just one way Great River Water Park is trying to reduce those numbers. Zirzow stated they now provide free swim instruction to teens in the Police Athletic League, a program offering enrichment opportunities for at risk teens. Most of the teens in the program are Somali, Asian or African American.

“They wanted to take the kids camping in the Boundary Waters, but they couldn’t swim,” Zirzow said. “So PAL contacted us. We give them swim lessons”

Likewise, students attending Higher Ground Academy, a predominantly Somali charter school, receive twice weekly swim lessons as part of their curriculum. However, cultural concerns regarding proper female attire and pool safety can be tricky to navigate.

“This is an emerging population,” Zirzow said. “Members of the Somali community have inquired about renting the pool, so the Somali women and families can swim. We’re working with the community to try to meet their needs.”

Reasons why Blacks don’t swim
Fear of drowning was the number one reason African Americans cited for not learning to swim, according to the USA Swimming Foundation study. However, by not learning to swim they actually place themselves in greater jeopardy.

Last summer in Louisiana, six African American teens wading in the river all drowned. None of the teens could swim, nor could any of the family and friends standing and screaming from the shore, watching in horror as each teen, in an attempt to save one another, disappeared.

Fear has not always been so prevalent. An exhibit at the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) in Fort Lauderdale, Florida reveals when Europeans first encountered coastal sub-Saharan Africans prior to slavery, they discovered the Africans were proficient swimmers. In contrast, very few Europeans could swim. Many slaves worked on ships with the specific task of diving in the water to retrieve valuable items. However, because the possibility for escape was great, swimming was eventually forbidden. Those who persisted risked severe punishment.                 

In the early 1900s, learn-to-swim programs sprang up nationwide geared to teaching White children to swim. Jim Crow laws banned Blacks from participating in these programs. In the landmark 1954 case Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled “separate but equal” was unconstitutional and ordered all public institutions, including pools, to be integrated. Rather than comply, many private, “restrictive” swimming clubs sprang up. Resources for maintenance of public pools dried up and many cities closed the pools and cemented over them.

With little access to adequate swimming environments or proper lessons, many Blacks tried to teach themselves in unsafe water holes which often led to tragic outcomes. Fear overwhelmingly trumped any desire to swim. The ISHOF exhibit is designed to help people understand yesterday’s discrimination directly contributes to today’s disparity.

An additional reason for the disparity, according to the USA Swimming Foundation study, is the lack of role models in the sport of swimming. Because few African Americans cannot name any Black swimming superstars they consider swimming to be a sport for Whites.

Swimming opens career doors
Swimming can be more than a leisure activity or a sport. It can open career doors for which a non-swimmer might not otherwise be eligible. Here are a few occupations that require some level swimming proficiency.                                 

  • Marine Biologist                                  
  • Oceanographer
  • Lifeguard
  • Swim Instructor
  • Aquatics Director
  • Ocean Engineer
  • Underwater Photographer
  • Scuba Diver
  • U. S. Coast Guard/Navy
  • Fishing Guide

Cullen Jones hopes he can change that perception. Jones, an African American, is classified as the world’s fastest swimmer in the 50 meter Freestyle. During the 2008 Summer Olympics, Jones stood beside Michael Phelps as gold medal champions in the 4×100 meter Freestyle Relay race. As he prepares for the 2012 Olympic tryouts, Jones travels the country on behalf of USA Swimming Foundation promoting Make a Splash Learn to Swim programs in urban communities.

Great River Water Park’s ethnically diverse lifeguard staff directly addresses the role-modeling issue. African Americans, Asians and Caucasians who visit the pool can see themselves in the lifeguard staff.

“We need to represent the population we serve,” said Zirzow.

Zirzow credits the staff’s diversity to the Saint Paul Public School’s Connections program. For the cost of one dollar, high school students can take a lifeguard training course and, upon successful completion, qualify to be certified lifeguards.

“I took the course,” Zirzow said. “So did most of the lifeguards here.”

Finally, the study noted African American women were less inclined to swim because water takes a toll on their hair. However, this reason ranked much lower than the others and seems to be of little concern for the women in the adult/teen class.

Zirzow knows they are making progress in the non-swimming community. However, he is aware there are still pockets of adults and teens they still need to reach. He hopes to find more ways to promote the program.

“Outreach work goes a long way,” Zirzow said.

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.