Friday, November 26, 2010

Swim Strong Foundation aims to stop drownings, keep kids fit

(By Patrick Clark)

About 40 percent of New York City public school students are overweight or obese, according to the Department of Health. The Centers for Disease Control, meanwhile, lists drowning as the second-leading cause of injury-related death for kids 14-and-under.

Into the fray steps the Swim Strong Foundation, an all-volunteer nonprofit that promotes water safety and physical fitness by providing beginner and competitive swim lessons at affordable rates.

On a recent Saturday, I spoke to Swim Strong founder Shawn Slevin at Far Rockaway High School swimming pool. In addition to the health and safety benefits of learning to swim, Slevin stressed the life skills that the swim lessons are teaching young swimmers and volunteer instructors. You can listen to the audio tracks here.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Swimming to the Other Side

Elaine Howley is a freelance writer and Masters swimmer living in the Boston area. She is a frequent contributor to SWIMMER magazine. Look for her to attempt a 44-mile swim around Long Beach Island in New Jersey and a double crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar in 2011. For more information or to keep up with what’s next, visit Howley’s blog, “Tales of the Beer Baby” at:

Some highlights from her swimming resume include:

· Record-holder for fastest Boston Light “Double,” a 16-mile out-and-back swim across the Boston Harbor (between L-Street and Little Brewster Island). Second female to ever complete the course and first tandem solo swim. Completed on August 12, 2010 in 7:07:48, breaking the 41-year-old record by 2 hours, 23 minutes.

.Current National Athlete of the Month for Strength USA

· Successful solo crossing of the English Channel, England to France, completed August 3, 2009, in 13 hours, 55 minutes,

· Eighth female finisher, 17th overall, at the 2009 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim held June 6, 2009, in New York City. Completed the 28.5-mile circumnavigation in 8 hours, 39 minutes, 50 seconds,

· 158th person to successfully cross the Catalina Channel on September 22, 2008 in a time of 10 hours, 57 minutes, 44 seconds,

In July 1984, at just eight years of age, I lost my little sister to Leukemia. She was only three years old, and I had been the bone marrow donor in the transplant that signaled a last-ditch attempt to save her life. I was devastated and felt inadequate for what I perceived as a failure of excruciating magnitude. I felt like I’d let my sister down in the highest stakes game there is, and I still struggle to articulate how that’s influenced who I’ve become.

After my sister died, I drew in on myself and muddled along in a fog. It was a tough time. But there were two things that got me through it: music and swimming. I eventually swam up on the other side of that deep, dark ditch.


Despite the difficulties associated with the terminal illness and loss of a child, my parents strove to provide the most stable, normal childhood for me and my brother, full of all the same wonders and growing pains that any other children in our suburban Philadelphia community were experiencing. I learned to swim at 18 months and spent long summers playing at the local pool. My family would spend a week at the Jersey shore every summer in a neighbor’s second home. There, I learned to read the waves and lose myself in the lap of the ocean and the tang of the salt. Sunburned and blonde, we’d sadly leave the shore for another interminable fall and winter, but always with the promise that we would, eventually, get back to the beach for more ocean time.

All these years later, it’s the promise of more ocean time that gets me through so many of life’s trials. From the mundane of work stress and deadlines to the more dramatic—the loss of my father, moving, starting a new job, and every other problem that arises— the water is a place for me to reconnect with myself and focus on the bigger picture.

Proving Myself in Competition

I started competitive swimming at age five, largely to follow in the footsteps of an accomplished older brother who is an excellent swimmer. Sibling rivalry dictated that I should hurl myself into the sport with everything I had, and I obliged. I’ve never really been able to extricate myself from the pull of the water, nor would I want to. It’s the swimming that keeps me sane.

I swam in high school and in college, and loved being a part of a team and ready-made family that made such a difference in my acclimation to both new institutions. After college, I joined the Peace Corps and swimming became much more difficult, so I drifted away from it and from the lane line that kept my life on track. It took a long while of struggling, but I eventually found my way back to the pool, and after grad school, I sought a new challenge. Open water marathoning seemed like just the right combination of spiritual release and athleticism, of peace and competition.

I entered my first race, the 2006 8-mile Boston Light Swim, on a dare. I wasn’t sure that I would be able to finish that first Boston Light Swim. I trained well for it, but knew next to nothing about nutrition or what to expect. I did my homework and tested my limits in training. Still, despite the hard work, I was astonished that I’d actually finished the eight miles.

After that race, I realized that there was a whole new world opening up to me. Where I had only ever heard of one-mile open water swims when I worked as a lifeguard on the Jersey shore in college, suddenly I became aware of a host of big challenges ranging from 2.4 to 50 miles or more. The horizon expanded and I was hooked.

Discovering that there was a whole 'nother world of ultra-long-distance, open water swims out there gave me a new focus. And as it turned out, I was pretty good at it. I can be a lot more competitive over a distance of 20 miles than I can in a 500-yard pool swim. It’s all physics and hydrodynamics. I’m built for warmth and endurance, not speed; I look more like a beluga than a shark. And here, news to me, was a sport that favored my special talents. I began dreaming big and wondered just how far I could swim.

The next summer, I took on the 12.5-mile Around Key West swim. I had trained hard all winter with some friends and finished the race comfortably, even though the swim was officially cancelled in mid-run due to weather and other factors. It was a boost to me to finish that race feeling so good, especially since I was slated to participate in the 41K Lake George Swim Marathon two weeks later in New York. There’s nothing quite like taking that wide a leap of faith and doubling your longest race distance in two weeks!

Growing Up

Lake George may be the most important swim I’ve done so far. I felt like I grew up in that lake. I battled 12 hours worth of strong headwinds, doubting my plan, my nutrition, my training, and myself with nothing to do but listen to my own strokes, the pulse of the water and wind against my ears, my crew’s shouted directions, and the hum of the guide boat’s motor. I struggled a lot emotionally, as well as physically, and I think I slayed a few demons out there. The old familiar doubts and fears from my childhood— my feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty, that old, familiar distrust of self— reared up and threatened to swamp me, in collusion with the heavy head wind. But I just kept chugging along.

When time was finally called on the course for safety reasons— as a result of the adverse conditions, only one swimmer had actually finished the whole 41K in the allotted 12 hours— I couldn’t believe how good I felt. I was swimming very strongly and gaining on the next nearest swimmer. I was also gaining on that ever-elusive confidence that I needed to learn to build; swimming for 12 hours straight and feeling like you could just keep going forever afterwards does wonders for how you view yourself. My training had been solid. My feed plan had worked. I had listened to all the dark voices in my head for 12 hours and didn’t give up. For the first time in a very long while, I felt truly and utterly alive— electrified and in love with this sport that gave me back so much of myself.

But I’m one of those people who can’t just leave well enough alone. Every single day when I wake up, I consider it “starting at zero.” It doesn’t matter what I did yesterday, it only matters how far I can get today. Swimming helps me cope with this insatiable drive to do something, anything. While in Lake George, I reflected for a long while about a conversation I’d had with one of the race officials the day before: I would be Catalina bound if I managed to survive this swim. The Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming wasn’t far behind.

Quest for the Crown

The Triple Crown of Open Water swimming is a series of extreme open water swims: the 21- mile English Channel, the 21-mile Catalina Channel, and the 28.5-mile around Manhattan Island Swim. Fewer than 50 people have successfully completed all three cold-water swims, and the Crown has become a recognized goal for many open water marathoners.

I started with Catalina and was successful in September 2008. Then came Manhattan in June 2009. That was followed in short order by the English Channel in August 2009. In all cases, I had good conditions and uneventful swims. Uneventful, that is if you’re speaking from a boater’s perspective. For me, they were life-altering adventures that have set me on a new course, have helped me develop life-long friends, and have given me just the slightest edge over that lingering suspicion that I’m somehow not good enough.

Swimming has done all of these things for me, and it’s not just the fact that I take on big, cold expanses of water. I believe I would have achieved the same sense of a life’s mission and self-assurance had I chosen to focus on breaking a minute in the 100 free, or qualifying for Masters Nationals in the 200 backstroke. The key was learning to invest in myself and trust my judgment. Swimming has given me the opportunities and the tools to do that, and that has enriched every other aspect of my life. I’m more focused and driven at work. I maintain better relationships. I relate to others better in both personal and professional settings, and I have a better sense of who I am as a person. All because of the simple arm-over-arm motion of cutting through water and the learned self-discipline to get out of bed and just keep working at it every single day.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Just a Little Push

(Andrew Scrivani is a freelance photographer and writer. His work appears regularly in the NY Times and he is a regular contributor to the New York Times Diner's Journal Blog. Andrew spent the better part of 20 years as an educator and school administrator in the New York area before becoming a full time photographer and writer.

Andrew writes the blog and his work can be viewed on his website

He lives and works in New York City.)

There was only one time in my life when I was in water over my head and was absolutely terrified. I was about 5-years old and my neighbors were filling their pool for the season. I was sitting on the pool deck watching and somebody shoved me in from behind. I couldn’t swim and immediately sunk to the bottom and got my leg tangled in the hose that was filling the pool. I was under for only seconds but I was panicking and took a lung full of water. I was pulled up and as I was coughing, shaking and crying I was also swearing I would never again go in the water. An hour later the pool was full and my neighbor’s dad ignored my cries and put me back in the pool to learn how to swim. I would have to say it was one of the most important events of my life.

Today much of my world revolves around the water and my love of swimming and the ocean. The ways I exercise and eat have to do with being strong and healthy enough to surf and ocean swim. I am a swim dad and my 11-year–old who swims competitively (and who has been swimming since she could walk) can already back-stroke faster than I can. I live near the ocean, have my weekend home on a lake and near a river, and try to surf as many days a month as my schedule will allow. I can’t imagine who I would be if I wasn’t pushed that day and subsequently eased back into the water and not allowed to succumb to the fear I felt. I certainly wouldn’t be a 41 year-old surfer and swim dad.

When I was a Health Education teacher and a summer day camp director, I advocated for swim programs. I understand that they are expensive and difficult to manage, insure and execute. I also understand that we can tackle two of the top killers of young people (drowning and childhood obesity) at once by instituting and funding swim programs. So, we can’t afford not to.

In my current profession, as a food photographer and writer I dedicate much of my time to showing and telling people about the healthy, real food. I cook and photograph all of the food for Martha Rose Shulman’s Recipes for Health column on the NY Times website’s Health section. I also write my own blog about the role food has played in my life. There I dedicate a portion of my entries to talking about how, in a profession filled with the pitfalls of overeating, I am able to stay fit. I often talk about my exercise regime and especially that I am involved in swimming and surfing.

Living in New York I read the accounts every summer. I read them with great sorrow. The stories about young people, drawn to the beauty, excitement and mystery of the water only to lose their lives to drowning because they have never been taught how to swim. We can do better. We should do better.

I am also frustrated by the way our children are being taught, almost from birth, about how to make poor food choices. Fast food, foods loaded with sugar, fat and salt are all you see advertised to kids as they sit and watch TV. Schools give lip service to healthy food programs and PE budgets as our kids get heavier and more sedentary. It’s a deadly cycle.

The discipline and exercise swimming provides young people are really unmatched. I spend a lot of time at the community pool with my daughter and you rarely see kids who are spending significant time in the water being overweight. The school I used to work at instituted both a swim program and a healthy lunch program over the past few years. The results have been astounding. Kids are thinner, healthier, have more self-confidence, are getting better grades and best of all are safe in the water because they can swim. They are motivated to eat better because it helps them swim better. That’s the cycle we want our kids on.

When my daughter was born I made a mental list of the things I wanted to give her. It included teaching her how to swim and instilling in her a love of good, healthy food. I see these as the same as trying to give her a great education and a safe environment to grow up in. Protecting her from drowning and obesity, ignorance and danger seemed like a pretty practical list.

I recently went swimming in a lake with a friend. She knows how to swim but figured out the hard way that she lacked the confidence to swim in open water. She jumped off our raft into water about 25 feet deep and immediately started to panic. I kept her calm and helped her back into the raft. She later told me a story about how she was always afraid of the water because her mother couldn’t swim and never allowed her near the water. She took lessons as an adult but had only really ever swum in pools. She told me she wished she had learned as a child because she thinks that she would have more confidence as a swimmer. That fear is something that comes back to her sometimes, like that day.

The water can also bring you great joy. This to, beyond the practical benefits learning how to swim has brought me, is paramount. My wife calls me an otter. She says I never seem happier than when I am floating around in the water on my back. She says that I seem at peace, fulfilled and calm when I swim. She says I swim with strength and grace and confidence and that makes her feel good. She thinks that it is an important part of who I am and supports my surfing lifestyle. I agree and love her even more for knowing this about me and for not killing me for tracking sand in the house all the time.

I would have never known any of these things without knowing how to swim. I wouldn’t have been able to share this with my child and instill in her a love of the water if I had never learned how to swim. I wouldn’t have been able to help my friend who had panicked in the water that day if I had never learned how to swim. I wouldn’t be as healthy and dedicated to my health and my eating habits if water sports were not so important to me.

Maybe I have gotten more from swimming than most, I don’t know, but in my estimation just the peace of mind of knowing that if somebody ever pushed me into the water again that I’d come up safely is more than enough. My hope is that this could be true for everyone, eventually. Maybe all we need is a little push.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Trouble brewing....

Earl, Earl...go away

Waters will be rough with Earl headed our way. Be careful and only swim with a lifeguard present!

Did you hug your lifeguard today??

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Be safe! Swim Strong!

Tropical Storm Danielle is brewing and growing and coming our way. She is already creating more rip currents and bigger waves.

Be sure to swim only where a lifeguard is present. Be very careful!

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Far Rockaway Community Day

Yesterday we joined the NYPD in celebration of the 3rd Community Day at Far Rockaway. The public was informed of the dangers of rip tides and the importance of knowing how to swim. For the safest and most enjoyable swimming experience join the Swim Strong Foundation!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Getting to Know Swim Strong

Swim Strong is excited to be part of the Change by the People team! We are about saving and changing children's lives through swimming.

Did you know that drowning is the 2nd largest cause of death for kids? That African American kids drown 3 times more than any other demographic? We're changing that, one child at a time, through our Learn to Swim program. We offer those in our primary locations of Flushing Meadow pool in Queens and St. Francis College in Brooklyn, NY. We have a special focus on Far Rockaway...the beaches where most of the drownings occur in NYC.

So that's the saving part....stay tuned for the changing part to follow.

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