Closing the swimming gap

Blaisdell YMCA aims to reduce disparity between white and minority drowning rates

LYNDALE – After a deep breath, Ker Drepaul, 9, gently dipped his face into the water, just enough to submerge his mouth and nose.

"One, two," counted swim instructor Robert Bruce Swanson Jr., his voice echoing in the steamy poolroom at the Blaisdell YMCA. Drepaul’s face sprang from the water, eyes squinting, mouth stretched in a big grin as if he had completed a record dive.

"This is their second day," Swanson said about his group of three young swimmers after a 45-minute lesson. "They’re doing great. They’re coming along just fine. Still got a few fears to work out, but we’ll get there."

His students were among nine minority children from Project for Pride in Living (PPL), a local nonprofit organization that signed up to be part of the YMCA’s

Water Safety Week from June 11-15. Roughly 1,000 children from various agencies throughout the Twin Cities participated in the free program, which focused on teaching basic water safety skills to low-income, immigrant and minority children at eight YMCAs in the metro area.

Economic and cultural barriers often keep minority children out of the pool, said Blaidell YMCA director Mike Melstad, causing them to drown at much higher rates than average. That’s why Melstad’s branch will continue to offer swim programs for those kids throughout the summer and into the fall.

"The swimming program that we’re doing, the special swim program, the learn to swim weeks, the water safety weeks, are a response to the tragically high drowning rate of minority and immigrant kids in Minnesota, but also in the whole country," Melstad said. "We’re really trying to sound a call to arms to get people to pay attention to this issue. It’s a major public health issue, and we’re trying to respond to it."

Swimming the gap

The largest disparity in U.S. drowning rates is between black and white children, according to research from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 2000 and 2004, black children age 5-14 drowned at a rate more than three times higher than that of whites.

Overall, the U.S. drowning rate for blacks between 2000 and 2004 was 1.3 times that of whites.

A 2005 report from Aquatics International, a publication considered an authority on the commercial and public swimming pool industries, found that Minnesota had a higher drowning rate for blacks than any other state: 3.15 blacks drowned for every 100,000 people in the state. No other state breached three for every 100,000 people.

Aquatic International also reported that 44 percent of black males and 77 percent of black females nationwide said they couldn’t swim, compared to 17 percent of white males and 45 percent of white females.

The total non-boating-related death toll from drowning in Minnesota – 45 in 2005 and 49 last year – is small when compared to bigger killers such as traffic accidents, which cause hundreds of deaths each year in the state. The relative low number of drowning deaths locally and throughout the U.S. is a likely reason the problem and its racial and socioeconomic disparities aren’t talked about, Melstad said.

He’s spreading the word at the Blaisdell center, located at 3335 Blaidell Ave., where 44 percent of the 4,600 members receive financial aid because they can’t afford a full-priced membership. The center serves an increasingly diverse population that includes Somalis, Latinos and people from other cultural backgrounds, some of them new to the U.S.

The Blaisdell YMCA has also promoted its swimming agenda at local agencies such as PPL, which helps low-income families, and Sabathani Community Center, which serves black youth in South Minneapolis.

Emily Stinnett and Sonia Perez, PPL services coordinators, said they were glad to sign up for Water Safety Week because many of the families they work with can’t afford swimming lessons, don’t have transportation, or don’t have time to bring their children to a pool. Some recent immigrants aren’t aware of swimming lesson opportunities or the importance of learning to swim, they said while watching their group of PPL children at the Blaisdell YMCA pool last month.

"I know some of the kids I brought here today have never swam in their life and have always been really scared of water," Stinnett said.

Water Safety Week participant Dakessa Hector, 11, said not knowing how to swim used to keep her out of the water. She was bobbing and moving around the deep end without fear on her second day of lessons, but she said getting started was hard.

"When they tell you to do something, you have to do it, and you’re wondering if you’re going to fall down or if you’re going to drown," she said. "But then after you do it you’re like, ‘Yeah, I can’t drown.’"

Hector and her fellow Water Safety Week participants practiced holding their breath under water, getting in and out of the pool, floating on their backs and several basic swimming techniques. Most swimmers only spent a few days of swim week in the pool, so instructors weren’t expecting their pupils to transform into lap swimmers.

"Given the amount of time we have with the kids, I don’t think it’s likely we’re actually going to teach anyone to swim," said Blaisdell YMCA swim instructor David Carpenter. "What I’m hoping is we teach them how to be safe around the water."

Role models

Blaisdell YMCA member Kevin Tendle, 51, of Richfield, waited patiently near the hot tub during swimming lessons last month before taking a dip in the pool.

Tendle, who is black, said he learned to swim in junior high school and went on to be a marine. Though swimming wasn’t an issue for him, he said many black people have a fear of water or don’t have access to it.

Tendle, who swims three times a week, was hopeful the YMCA’s programming would help get children in the pool who wouldn’t have an opportunity otherwise and maybe change some misconceptions about water.

"If they see more older black men [swimming], that might help, too," Tendle said. "Because I’m sure those kids are looking at me."

As Tendle swam back and forth along the pool lanes, another black man, Richard Edwards, and his daughter, Nile Edwards, waded into the shallow end. Richard, 38, of Minneapolis, said Nile, 5, took to the water several years ago, and it showed as she eagerly dunked below the surface, her kicking feet splashing her dad.

Richard doesn’t harbor any fears of water, but he knows others who do.

"A lot of African Americans tell me [they don’t learn to swim] because they’re afraid of the water," he said. "It’s too deep, too cold, different reasons like that."

Swimming is an important life-skill to learn, he said.

"Plus it’s a great exercise," he said. "A great full-body exercise. I need it myself more often."

A donation from pool chemical company Hawkins Inc. funded Water Safety Week. Metro area YMCAs are hoping to find other sponsors so similar programs can be offered this year. Melstad said the Blaisdell YMCA would take part in those initiatives, but it is also working on its own swim programs.

Closing the swimming gap is an ongoing priority, he said. "I see this as mission work that will continue until nobody drowns."

For an audio slideshow featuring swimmers at the Blaisdell YMCA, go to