The USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative is celebrating 10 years of saving children's lives through swim lessons. Take a look back at the progress that's been made and at what's next in this four-part story.
There is a kind of magic to the hum of a pool deck. The tone and tempo change, and at times the whole thing slips into controlled chaos, but the symphony of frenzied coaches and exhausted athletes pushing through the final laps of a long workout is oddly beautiful. It’s the sound of fond, lifelong memories being made.
Competitive and recreational pools have long been happy places for kids the world over, and rightly so. But for those who grow up without access to swimming lessons, danger hides in plain sight. Ten people drown in the U.S. every day, and children (especially those in minority communities) are at the greatest risk.
In 2007, with the world’s eyes fixed on the upcoming Beijing Olympic Games, the USA Swimming Foundation made water safety a top priority with the launch of its Make a Splash initiative. Through a curated network of local learn-to-swim programs, and later a national media tour headlined by some of the sport’s greatest champions, Make a Splash has already delivered $4.4 million in grant money to swim lesson providers in all 50 states. Hundreds of thousands of learn-to-swim scholarships have been provided at free or reduced rates to families in need. This summer, the Make a Splash total nationwide enrollment will top five million.
What a difference a decade makes.
At the dawn of Make a Splash, the national learn-to-swim landscape was rocky terrain. Many local providers had been doing great work in their communities for years, but a paucity of available resources and the general lack of public awareness long undermined the need for cohesive, large-scale growth. These pockets of successful programs tended to be isolated and underfunded. Some dipped into their own pockets, creating opportunities for as many children as possible while absorbing costs and asking more of their staffs. The cause was undeniable, but the challenges could overwhelm.
Tina Dessart is the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash Program Director, and brings more than 25 years’ experience as a coach, instructor, and owner of her own swim school. She knows all about the challenges that learn-to-swim providers face, but she warns that the need greatly outweighs the obstacles.
“Drowning is the leading cause of death for children younger than four, and it’s the second leading cause of death for children under 14,” says Dessart. “Swimming lessons alone can reduce the risk of childhood drowning by 88 percent. Once parents learn those numbers, they tend to take action.”
Making resources available to families of all backgrounds was an obvious place to start. Rather than overshadowing or competing with local providers, Make a Splash’s Local Partner program was designed to coalesce and strengthen their individual efforts, building a unified network in the process. Through this framework the USA Swimming Foundation could channel dollars and support directly to local providers and communities across the nation.
But Kim O’Shea, who preceded Dessart in overseeing Make a Splash’s programming efforts, remembers when convincing providers to take part was an uphill battle. “We really had to do some trust-building with swim school owners,” she says. “I think they were a little wary that we were going to take their kids, or take credit for what they were doing. One of the things I’m most proud of is that we were able to earn that trust — that we weren’t going to do anything to change them, or be an imposition, or take away from them, but rather support what they were doing and helping them grow.”