Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Out of the Pool

In response to the two drowning deaths that occurred the first day the city pools were open, City Council members heard about new pool regulations during today's parks committee meeting.

The new regulations include a way for lifeguards to easily identify which swimmers are allowed to be in the deep end and mandating that someone over 18 years old accompanies children 12 and under and shorter than 4 ft. tall to the pool.

"They aren't required to have a parent with them. It's an adult, 18 and older," said parks director Cindy Buchanan. "It doesn't have to be their parent or guardian, but it needs to be someone responsible."

Several council members worried that requiring children to be accompanied by an adult would effectively discourage people from using city pools.

Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware wanted to know if the adult had to accompany the child to the pool or in the water.

"You ask me to take my child, that's one thing. You ask me to take them to the pool, get undressed, and get in the water with them, that's another thing," Ware said.

She added, "I understand you're trying to avoid disaster, but some of this I think was done to discourage people from either going to or sending their children to the pool."

Buchanan said those with younger children should consider being in the water with their kids.

"If they're three-, four- or five-years-old, and they're in the pool and you're on the deck, you're not really supervising," she said. "Our lifeguards are trained in life saving; they're not trained in babysitting."

Under the new regulations, swimmers will also have to pass a test before they can go into the deep end.

"We believe the Memphis city pools are as safe as we can make them," Buchanan said.

But the fact is for people who don't know how to swim, a pool is never going to be completely safe.

Buchanan said about 200 to 300 children take swim lessons at the city pools each summer. There are certainly other places to take lessons, but that number sounds really low to me.

I've been a swimmer much of my life. I started swim team when I was probably 5. I spent several summers (and winters, indoor pool) lifeguarding. In high school, one of my nicknames was Splash.

So I'm a little surprised that, up until now, swimmers wouldn't have to pass a swim test before being allowed in the deep end.

When I was a kid in Atlanta, before you were able to go into the deep end, you had to be able to swim one length of the pool without stopping or holding onto the side. When you turned 10, you were able to go to the pool by ourselves, but not before showing the lifeguard that you could swim a lap, swim the width of the pool without taking a breath, and tread water for five minutes.

Let me tell you, even my friends who weren't on the swim team learned how to swim. Why? Because they wanted to go off the diving board; they wanted to play Sharks and Minnows in the deep end. And they wanted to be able to go to the pool even when their parents couldn't watch them.

Those were powerful incentives. And I wonder if pools have gotten so safe in recent years that they've actually become more dangerous.

I recently spoke with Danny Fadgen, aquatics director at the Memphis Jewish Community Center, about the multi-million dollar renovation to their facilities. (I'll add a link once the story is on the Flyer website. If I remember.)

They added several high-end features — two-story water slides, pool playgrounds — but it left them with less deep water. In fact, over half of the "pool" is water three feet deep or less.

Fadgen worries the change will mean that pool-goers will be weaker swimmers than they have been traditionally.

This seems to be the way aquatic facilities are moving. A few years ago, I wrote about the last diving board in Midtown. At the time, Ed Rice Aquatic Center had just opened with six lap lanes and a zero-depth entry, but no diving board. Of the city's 16 pools, five had diving boards.

"When we do renovations at the pools, we clean up the deck and redo the concrete," David Han, the city's aquatics manager, had said. "We do not put the diving board back in." He could name about 100 swim coaches in the area but not a single diving coach.

So here's my question: What's the incentive now to learn how to swim? And swim well?

I might not be teenager, but I can tell you, when faced with a shallow pool without a diving board or water slides or anything fun, I see a large, communal bathtub.

Sure there's fun to be had there, but it doesn't involve swimming. It involves lounging on floats and rough-housing.

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