During the first week of the Olympics, all eyes turn to the pool. Phelps, Lochte, Coughlin: America routinely produces some of the world’s best swimmers.
But as a country, America is barely keeping afloat. According to the Red Cross, 37 percent of Americans say they’re not good swimmers. Thirteen percent say they can’t swim at all.
While those numbers are bad, they're even worse among minorities. According to the U.S.A. Swimming Foundation, 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children don't know how to swim.
Four years ago, just before the last summer games, Dr. Carol Irwin, assistant professor of physical education at the University of Memphis, performed this study. About 42 percent of the white children had little to no swimming ability.
Anthony Norris is a business owner and Board Chair of Memphis Splash. He is also a board member of U.S.A. Swimming’s Diversity Initiative and father of former competitive swimmers on Team U.S.A. The low popularity of swimming in African-American communities is one of the factors he says leads to the statistical disparity, as well as the unwillingness of parents who don't know how to swim to let their children approach the sport.
"The initial reaction would be to keep them away from the water versus [getting them] into some organized program so that they would be able to swim," Norris says.
Despite this caution around water, Norris and his program are making considerable inroads. "It's one that's very well-received once it's communicated and shared, and we see it every day with the long waiting list [of] our free and low-cost swimming lessons."
Irwin believes that to not address this problem would not only be irresponsible, but dangerous. "I think what we're doing is we're just setting up more and more drowning numbers by not doing anything about it," she says.
"The surface of the Earth is covered by water at 70 percent, so we're going to run into water eventually," Irwin says. "To me, becoming comfortable in our environment is really important, and water is a part of our environment."