Diving into the Divide: Exploring Barriers to Swimming in America

This article takes inspiration from Jay Willis’ personal journey of learning to swim as an adult. To delve into his full story, click here

Statistics from the Red Cross reveal that approximately one in five Americans cannot swim, and the reasons behind this vary. Factors such as limited facility access, lack of affordable instruction, negative childhood experiences, and a rational fear of water’s breath-taking immersion contribute to this issue. Urban residents, compared to their suburban and rural counterparts who have access to pools and lakes, are less likely to have learned swimming as children. Similarly, individuals from less-wealthy families face similar challenges. In fact, one swim instructor shared that “half the kids in New York City don’t even get to see a pool.

The influence of “cultural” factors, as identified by the Red Cross, also plays a significant role. African-Americans, for instance, report a higher inability to swim, with one-third stating that they cannot swim compared to 16 percent of white individuals. This disparity can be attributed to a combination of historical racial discrimination in public accommodations, resulting stereotypes, and the persisting lack of pools in historically black neighborhoods and educational institutions. Tragically, around ten Americans drown every day, and African-Americans have a higher likelihood of being among the victims across all age groups compared to their white counterparts.

Regardless of the underlying causes, unfamiliarity often leads to contempt or disinterest. Among adults who cannot swim, 28 percent of city-dwellers express a lack of enjoyment in water-related activities, and the same percentage overall state a lack of interest in learning. Some individuals are hesitant to admit their inability to swim as adults, as it challenges the expectation that swimming is a skill learned in childhood. A coach at SwimGuru in Seattle, explains, “People are nervous about being in a public space, in front of lifeguards, and maybe with little kids watching. I get one-on-one requests all the time from adults who say they want to do this—they just don’t want anyone else in the room.

The barriers to swimming in America are multifaceted, encompassing both physical and cultural factors. Recognizing and addressing these challenges is crucial to promoting water safety, inclusivity, and providing opportunities for individuals of all backgrounds to learn and enjoy the benefits of swimming.

Overcoming the challenge of learning to swim as an adult may seem daunting, but with determination and the right approach, it is absolutely possible. Here are some steps to help you overcome this hurdle:

  1. Find a supportive environment.
  2. Start with water familiarization.
  3. Break down the swimming techniques into smaller, manageable skills. 
  4. Seek professional instruction. 
  5. Practice regularly.


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