Why Don’t More Mainers Learn To Swim?

Jul 20, 2018

Swimming lessons are in full swing around lakes, ponds and pools this summer. But even in a state like Maine, with so many bodies of water, getting access to lessons can be challenging.

Some people can't afford them. Others have a lifelong fear of the water. According to the American Red Cross, more than half of all Americans either can't swim or lack basic swimming skills. The Red Cross is doubling down on efforts to teach more people about water safety.

At Crescent Lake Beach in Raymond, swimming lessons start bright and early: 8:15 a.m. for advanced swimmers and 9 a.m. for kids at the intermediate level.

Instructor Lisa Magiera works with kids individually and as a group on basic swim strokes. As the kids practice the crawl, their parents watch from the shore.

Lori Fletcher of Raymond has two kids, ages 11 and 9. She wants them to learn as she did growing up in a small town in northern Maine.

"I want them to learn water safety so that when they go off to camps and they go out with their friends that I can feel assured that they know how to be safe in the water," Fletcher says.

Fletcher's sister Erin York has also brought her three kids for lessons. She lives 45 minutes away in Durham, but says she's willing to make the trip every other day for three weeks.

Lisa Magiera teaches class on Panther Pond, Raymond
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

"We have a Y in Freeport that we have access to, but I grew up having swimming lessons in a similar setting, and it's family friendly,” says York. “You know, my kids can be playing in the water while my other daughter has her lesson. So, it works well for us."

But for some people, like 48-year-old Donna Harris of Auburn, swimming remains an elusive activity. At around age 8, she was traumatized by an experience in the water.

"I grew up in a large family. There were seven children and neither of our parents knew how to swim or cared to swim, so they rarely took us to the beach,” she says. “On one instance, one of those rare occasions, we were out at Bear Pond. I waded a little too far and actually had one of my older brothers there who decided that it would be fun to hold me under, and since then I've been terrified of being in water over my head."

A martial arts instructor, Harris prides herself on physical fitness and setting personal goals. But the memory of struggling in that pond and thinking she might drown is something she's been unable to conquer.

"I've tried to learn how to swim, and my husband has tried to teach me. I wish I could. I wish I could feel more comfortable in the water," she says.

"When you don't know how to do something like that, you're afraid to even get in a bathing suit,” says Matt Dunlap. “You know, you're afraid to even get in above your waist in the water."

Dunlap is an outdoor enthusiast who grew up near the ocean in Bar Harbor. He also happens to be Maine's secretary of state. And when he's not working, he spends a fair amount of time on the water: canoeing, kayaking, fishing and duck hunting. His father was a deep sea diver with the U.S. Coast Guard. But for some reason, Dunlap never caught the swimming bug.

Beginning at an early age, that made him feel left out.

"All your friends are swimming,” he says. “They're playing water polo and Marco Polo. Even getting into a swimming pool today, you know, as they slope down when my feet lose contact with the bottom I start to panic and it's fearsome. It's embarrassing."

Dunlap grew up hearing stories about a young cousin who drowned, and that may have affected his mindset about the water. So when he became a father he made sure that his daughter took swimming lessons. Someday, he says, he plans to take them, too.

He'll be in good company. According to the U.S. Swimming Foundation, 60 percent of African Americans, 42 percent of Hispanics and 40 percent of whites say they cannot swim. Four years ago, in an effort to reduce drowning deaths, the American Red Cross set a goal to teach 50,000 more people to swim around the country and to train an additional 500 lifeguards and 500 swimming instructors.

"And because of the great success of this program and the impact that it's having in communities, we are now going to continue it, so that five-year plan has been continued indefinitely,” says Connie Harvey, the director of the Aquatics Centennial Initiative for the American Red Cross.

Harvey says the goal now is to expand water safety training to 100 communities so that 100,000 more people become what she calls "water competent."

"And that's a combination of water smarts, water skills and the final thing is helping others, knowing how to keep yourself out of trouble."

Lisa Magiera helping a student learn to float
Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public

Back at Crescent Lake, swimming instructor Lisa Magiera demonstrates a proper back float. When it comes to water safety, she says she wants her students to be relaxed, confident and to have fun.

"When I'm teaching swimming the very hardest thing to overcome is fear. Whether it's a child's fear or an adult's fear and very often as adults we share that fear with our children."

Magiera says it is important to address fear early. Adults who've lived with fear for decades can also learn to swim. But, for them, Magiera recommends private lessons with a trained instructor who makes them feel safe enough to finally let it go.