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OpEd: Dear Black Parents, Investing in Swimming Lessons Saves Lives

Forget about the latest cell phone model or pair of celebrity sneakers. Invest in swim lessons.
Image: Children on Pool Raft
Portrait of children ( 6-7, 8-9 ) with pool raft in Florida, Jupiter.Daniel Grill / Getty Images/Tetra images RF

My journey to living my passion started when I was depressed, blacklisted and almost broke.

I was wrongfully terminated from my job at a major hospital and I didn’t know what to do next. I continued to workout, run and swim to keep from going stir crazy. My belief was strong: I knew this madness had a higher calling.

I don’t remember the day, but the month was March and the year was 2009. Something was different, I felt like I was going to get my assignment to make a difference. But, what? I was on my couch, crying, watching the "Today Show" and Donny Deutsch was talking about branding.

The stock market had crashed, the economy had tanked, but Donny said, “This is the best time to start a business in the worst economy. I know people may think I’m crazy but do something you love, make a niche and the rest will come.”

I came out of my crying fog and said, “What am I good at?” Swimming.

At that moment, I was jazzed and juiced to find a swim company and apply for a job. The universe had other plans. I started thinking back to when I learned how to swim and remembered no one looked like me — except for my mom and sister. Not one of my instructors were African-American or a person of color.

Image: Agnes Davis
Agnes Davis, CEO of swim swim swim I SAY in Harlem, New York. Whitney Thomas

I Googled minority-owned swimming companies in the Metro New York City area and came up with zilch. Interestingly, however, what kept popping up was minority drowning rates. Imagine reading that drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death among children.

But to add insult to injury, out of nine drownings a day, six were people of color. People of color were three times more likely to drown than any other ethnic group: 70% of African-Americans, and 60% of Hispanics did not know how to swim. I felt numb almost paralyzed with the information that people were drowning and it was avoidable.

I had to wrap my head around these facts because I knew how to swim; however, this was real data. But, what I found more interesting was that there was a simple solution. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention clearly stated that drowning can be totally prevented by taking swimming lessons and learning how to swim.

I asked myself, "Why are people of color three times likely to drown? Why is anyone, child or adult, losing their life?" It is a complex answer and I needed to delve deeper because five drownings occurred locally (three adults and two children) so no one was immune — not any race or socioeconomic group. (Don’t forget, near drowning incidents weren’t even calculated into these figures.)

Related: Summer Camp Closed After Accidental Drowning of 5-Year-Old in Georgia

First, I uncovered the lack of accessibility to pools and generational fear of drowning contributed highly to the drowning rates. I thought about how many children's reality in segregated parts of this country only knew they could splash around, not swim, in a pool on the last day of the summer because it was drained the next day.

So teaching a survival skill and mastering swimming was not an option because it just did not exist. In urban areas, funding for pools shifted, pool upkeep was sidelined, deterioration occurred and basic maintenance was non-existent. The end result, pools close and never reopen.

Forget about the latest cell phone model or pair of celebrity sneakers. Invest in swim lessons.

Now, let’s add on generational fear of the water and drowning. A child hearing at a young age, “Don’t go near the water because I can’t help you if you fall in. You will drown.”

Older individuals truly mean well, but the cycle of fear is passed down to their children; the seed has been planted for generations not to swim, henceforth becoming a drowning statistic. Fear is the culprit.

I also have to admit, I grew more frustrated when I learned, people of color viewed swimming as a luxury sport, not as a necessary lifesaving skill or a sport that could change their socio-economic status. If it wasn’t basketball, baseball, or football, people could not see the positives of a teenager learning to swim.

Image: Agnes Davis
Agnes Davis, CEO of swim swim swim I SAY in Harlem, New York.Bruce Johnson

Real talk: Summer employment as a lifeguard and possible college scholarship opportunities come from swimming. A lifeguard’s salary ranges from $9 to $15 an hour not including overtime depending on your location (pool, beach, or country club).

Go one step further, college scholarships are available to swim on a team, or sculling (row a boat). Remember, a college degree increases your salary over a lifetime in excess of $1 million, compared to a high school diploma. We have to think differently.

But the icing on the cake for me as a woman of color that I read repeatedly and heard, “I don’t want to get my hair wet.” Are you kidding? OMG! I quickly understood why the drowning rates for people of color were so high. I am a person of color that can swim better than most. But the hair thing, is silly. Beauty and good looks can’t save your life.

Are we winning the war with drowning? Not yet. If a child, mother, father, brother, sister, drowns, we all lose. The CDC has made it very clear that swimming lessons can prevent and lower drowning rates.

Related: Cullen Jones, Simone Manuel and the Impact of Blacks in Swimming

My gift to you is mastering baby steps. Please don’t give yourself or family a false sense of safety by having a child “think” they can swim because they have on a life vest or blow up wings. Invest in lessons and become fearless.

Also, seek recreational centers with pools for year-round lessons. Generational fear can be changed with just with one person making a change. Look for a program like mine, swim swim swim I SAY that specializes in teaching about the fear of water. Summer employment and economic change can happen with swimming.

Forget about the latest cell phone model or pair of celebrity sneakers. Invest in swim lessons, making sure your child/family has a lifesaving skill and be proactive against accidental drowning. Lastly, look into free programs, they are out there.


  • Invest in smaller class size for hands on lessons
  • Lifeguards must be present wherever you swim
  • Forget about the hairstyle, think about self empowerment
  • Support and use natural hair products with moisturizing ingredients (condition, condition, condition your hair and moisturize your skin)
  • Have fun

Don’t let excuses ever hold you back.

Image: Children on Pool Raft
Portrait of children ( 6-7, 8-9 ) with pool raft in Florida, Jupiter.Daniel Grill / Getty Images/Tetra images RF

Agnes Davis is the CEO of swim swim swim I SAY, based in Harlem, servicing the amazing city of New York.

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