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Drowning case heightens awareness of water safety
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During a recent swimming lesson at the Collinsville YMCA pool, lifeguard Caroline Williams teaches a group of young children how to swim. (Bulletin photo by Mike Wray)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

By SAM JACKSON - Bulletin Staff Writer

There is no level of swimming competency that can make someone immune to the possibility of drowning, according to longtime lifeguard Susan Cart.

“Anybody can drown,” said Cart, a lifeguard instructor for the Piedmont chapter of the American Red Cross. “Even the ones who have been in the Olympics; they can drown. It depends on the circumstances.”

In the wake of the drowning death of an 18-year-old Martinsville man July 4 at Fairy Stone State Park, local aquatic experts stressed the importance of swimmers knowing the area around them and having someone looking out for them — especially in the case of children.

“There are varying levels of knowing how to swim,” said Brad Kinkema, executive director of the Henry County-Martinsville YMCA. “Even with a lifeguard, if you have a child or someone who is not a strong swimmer, you need to watch them.”

Lifeguards, Kinkema said, cannot be everywhere all the time, and the time it takes for a swimmer to fall into danger is only as long as taking a breath.

“An accident can happen in a tenth of a second in the pool,” he said.

For that reason, Kinkema said, children must be looked after constantly.

“If you go someplace without a guard ... set limits to where the child can go” in the water, he said. Also, a lot of kids don’t like wearing life vests because they think the vests restrict their movement.

“That can be a fatal mistake,” Kinkema said.

He stressed that those who are in danger in the water don’t necessarily thrash about and make noise in a way that’s easy to recognize. They sometimes can’t be seen, he added.

“Most individuals who drown don’t yell for help (because) they ingest water, and they slip under the water and you never see them again,” he said.

That’s why the “buddy system” is important, said Cart, who instructs both new swimmers and lifeguards in the pool at the Bassett Community Center.

“That buddy system is a big thing right now,” she said. That way, if two swimmers are together and one is in danger, the other “can go to a lifeguard or you go to an adult. Yell for help. Get the lifeguard’s attention.”

Pamela Foley, aquatics director at the Y, pointed out that a lifeguard’s job is watching out for the safety of all swimmers, which also means he or she can’t zero in on particular children all the time.

“I think lots of people take for granted the number of kids who (can) swim,” she said. “I think lots of time, people take for granted the people who are actually watching.”

Foley said whether a swimmer has a “buddy” with them in the water or not, everyone needs “someone who you’re accountable to them and they’re accountable to you. I always stress to parents, ‘Watch your child. No matter what, watch your child.’”

Water, Kinkema said, “is not a natural environment” if a person “did not spend a lot of time in the water as a child. Everybody needs to at least have swimming lessons.”

The Y offers swim programs for children as young as 9 months through adulthood, including private lessons. In one eight-lesson course, Foley said, one session is devoted entirely to water safety and how to assist another swimmer, or how to properly reach for assistance in the water.

Knowledge of the environment is key, she said, because any competent swimmer can go too far.

“In the case of Fairy Stone, people forget how tired you can get swimming,” she said.

In deep water or when on a boat, Cart said, parents “need to put life jackets the on kids.”

Also, she said, while the “buddy system” is good, a safe distance should be kept between swimmers. Also, horseplay in the water must be avoided.

“When you go under, make sure you have a safe distance so you can kick or move your arms” without disturbing other swimmers, she said. “Swimming close to friends, you can get kicked in the head or in the chest, and that can make you lose your breath.”

If you find yourself struggling to remain above the water, Cart said, “Don’t panic. That’s the main thing I tell in my swim lessons. If you’re getting tired (and swimming), roll over on your back to rest. Then go back onto your stomach and swim normally.”


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