(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.
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.