I shared a lane earlier this week with a young man who was having a hard time. He struggled back and forth across the pool. At one point, he turned to his friends in the next lane and said dramatically, “Swimming is HARD. You do one thing wrong, dude, and you’re DEAD.”
I thought, “Fair enough. But this pool is three-and-half-feet deep. You could just stand up.”
I am a risk-averse person. I don’t enjoy danger. I don’t want to skydive; I don’t want to race cars; I don’t want to climb Everest. I don’t even like watching scary movies. Some people are adrenaline junkies. I am an endorphin junkie. I don’t like fear.
All this is to say: I don’t feel afraid when I swim. I am not fighting the water to stay alive. I am not one wrong move away from death.
Of course, some people find swimming frightening, constantly life-threatening (an oft-cited statistic: 37% of American adults can’t swim the length of a pool). My friends like to send me articles about people who drown (here’s one). I assume they send these articles out of concern; they want me to be safe. They see these stories about people drowning, and they think swimming, especially open-water swimming, is a risky activity: “You do one thing wrong, dude, and you’re DEAD.”
But when I read these articles, I find they share two characteristics: they are sad, very very sad, and they have nothing to do with people like me.
Some drowning victims are people who fall off boats, sometimes into dangerously cold water, without flotation devices; often alcohol is involved. Some, tragically, are children (or adults) who didn’t know how to swim and yet were in the water anyway. The drowning victims in these articles aren’t swimmers who set out to swim a couple miles on a clear day. They are non-swimmers in water.
There are dangerous places to swim: beaches with rip currents, lakes with ice cold water. I don’t swim in those places. But there are lots and lots of stretches of water all around the world that are hazard-free — or have manageable hazards — and I’d be happy to swim in all of them.
WildWomanSwimming posted an article last summer (Swimming Deaths and Risk) discussing “scare-mongering, anti-swimming” stories that make open water swimming sound inherently dangerous and open water swimmers sound like foolish risk-takers. And yet she notes these statistics about river fatalities in the UK:
For example, in 2012 ninety-nine water related deaths occurred in rivers. Just four of those were swimmers: twelve people were walking or running; four were angling. Others were engaged in a range of water sports or were simply found in the water (figures from National Water Safety Fatal Incident Reports, on which ROSPA [The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents] base their information).
In one year, ninety-nine people died in rivers. Four of the ninety-nine were swimmers. The rest were non-swimmers in water.
I know people who have taken unnecessary risks. A friend’s husband signed up for a triathlon. He isn’t much of a swimmer. He didn’t have time to train. But as the race approached, he figured he could struggle through a mile in a lake, especially in a wetsuit. He was wrong. Fortunately, the event had excellent safety procedures; when he signaled for a safety boat, they picked him up and brought him in. That story has a happy ending, but it could have had a very sad one. I would consider that man a non-swimmer in water: he had no business being in the middle of a lake.
But I have few worries in the middle of a lake. In swimming as in the rest of life, you minimize risk. You don’t swim in bad weather or in water you don’t know. You don’t go out when you are injured or unwell. You check conditions. You know your limits. You swim prepared.
For me, swimming is not about surviving a dangerous challenge. A ten-mile swim in a clear lake with a kayaker next to me? I’m as safe as can be.
In September I swam the Dam Swim for Drew in Lake Murray in Columbia, SC. The annual race, hosted by Lexington High School, is swum in memory of Joseph Drew Smith, who died in a boating collision while fishing with his father. He was eleven years old. As the result of Drew’s death and the hard work of his parents, the South Carolina Boating Reform and Safety Act (known as Drew’s Law) was passed in 1999. The most dangerous thing in any lake is not the water, not fish or any wildlife — it’s drunk people on motorboats.
The race is two miles along the dam. There were adults swimming, but the race was full of swim team kids, both year-rounders and high schoolers. I passed groups of them chatting in the water along the way. They weren’t swimming not to die. They were swimming to have fun.