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Swimming lessons can be a life saver, officials say

By Staff | Jun 27, 2009

Safety advocates are recommending that parents enroll their kids in swimming lessons this summer because it only takes a second for a small child to become lost and fall in a pool.
A simple lesson in swimming could make the difference in saving a child’s life.
Michele King, director of the Child Advocacy Program at the Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, recommends that children in Florida — with ubiquitous access to the ocean, rivers, pools and spas — enroll in lessons.
“We encourage swimming lessons because obviously it doesn’t make kids drown proof, but it also teachers water safety,” said King.
Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 in Florida. The Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida has treated 17 near drownings since January 1, said King, and all of the near drownings involved children under the age of 5.
Swim lessons are popular in Lee County, with the parks and recreation department typically hitting full enrollment during the summer months, she said. Parents have a lot of local options to get their children educated in how to navigate the water and how to stay safe.
Of course, one question for most parents wanting their children in lessons is: How young is too young? Lessons typically won’t take children younger than 6 months, but King recommends that parents consult their pediatricians before signing up their infants or newborns.
“Parents know their children and some are ready earlier than others,” she said.
Besides training children on how to swim in a pool, officials also recommend that parents install protective fences around their pools or spas and never allow a child to play near a body of water without adult supervision. Adults can even designate an official “water watcher” during backyard barbecues or take turns watching the children.
Chiqui Zabala is a swim instructor at The Wellness Center of Cape Coral, behind Cape Coral Hospital on Del Prado Boulevard. She offers lessons for all ages twice a week in the evenings or on Saturdays. While she gets teenagers and adults wanting to become swimmers, Zabala said a majority of her instruction is catered towards babies.
“They cry, they throw up, but they learn how to swim,” she said. “They hold their breath for a long time underwater and that gives babies time not to drown.”
Babies over six months old are accompanied by their parents who wade in the water during the lesson. Zabala added that not every minute of the lesson includes tedious or frightening work in the water, because they take a breather and have a little fun by gathering in a circle and singing.
Swimming instruction continues until she notices that students are able to swim on their own. They start as level ones, where they don’t know anything about swimming, and progress to become level two or three swimmers as they learn different strokes and styles of swimming.
“Once I see the kid can swim, if they want, they can continue as a professional or join the swim team in Fort Myers,” said Zabala.
Fort Myers has a team called Swim Florida that includes a separate team for children, she said. Both of her own sons, 10-year-old Santiago and 4-year-old Diego compete with local swim teams and participate in Cape Coral triathlons.
Zabala, a Colombian national champion in the 200 yard backstroke, has been a swimming instructor and rehabilitation tech at Cape Coral Hospital for the last six years. She came to the United States in 2001 unable to speak English and with no legal papers, but gained fluency through a program at Edison State College and earned her physical therapist assistant license.
“I didn’t know any English, I only knew how to swim,” she said. “I started swimming because of my Mom, she said if she dies at least I will be able to teach swimming lessons.”
Many of the classes offered at The Wellness Center are geared towards adults who don’t know how to swim. King said she is surprised at how many adults can’t swim and that disinterest typically transfers to children.
Zabala said that adult lessons are private, one-on-one sessions that are more expensive, although it isn’t uncommon for her to enroll adults who never got around to learning the basics.
For more information on classes, contact The Wellness Center of Cape Coral at 573-4507.