Where a Quarter of the Islanders Cannot Swim - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Where a Quarter of the Islanders Cannot Swim

Where a Quarter of the Islanders Cannot Swim

By Tracy Moran


Because it’s sink or swim.

By Tracy Moran

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I watched with envy as my next-door neighbor, Carolyn Smith, had her new pool hoisted over her drive in our quiet Cambridgeshire village. For weeks, workmen whirred and churned to make her backyard look like a Spanish holiday. After a few finishing touches — wave machine, palm tree and hot tub — she extended a much-wanted invite: “Come over for a swim.” My bag was already packed.

Gloriously warm sunny summer days in England are few and far between, so Brits who invest in outdoor garden pools are brave — and perhaps a bit mad. But I had no idea just how courageously crazy this venture was. ”Aren’t you coming in?” I asked Carolyn after diving in. She waded in, arms held high, going only to her hips. “I’m not very comfortable. I don’t know how to swim,” she explained. She had just invested months and more than a few quid on a beautiful backyard oasis — and she had no intention of getting her hair wet. “But you live on an island,” I stuttered in shock. Turns out, Carolyn’s in good company. According to a recent YouGov poll of nearly 1,700 British adults, as many as

27 percent say they can’t swim 25 meters.

That’s the standard pool length. Another 14 percent topped out at two pool lengths, or 50 meters, while at the other end of the spectrum, less than a fifth reckon they could manage 20 pool lengths or more. That’s just 10 laps. And 11 percent admitted they can’t swim at all.

“One day I may even pluck up the courage to have swimming lessons — if only to cut down on our water bill.”

For my neighbor’s family, growing up, it had never been a priority. “No one in my family could swim,” she says. She never had lessons, but she fancied the idea of having a pool, “so when the opportunity came for us to install one, I took it,” she says.

Even those with plenty of access growing up don’t manage to crack it. Max Robinson, a 32-year-old from Scotland, for example, loves sports, runs a sports-related business and had a mum who taught swimming. But try as he might, Max says he has “always felt frustrated by my inability to swim.” His brother, meanwhile, swam for his university team. 

YouGov political researcher Abigail Axe-Brown hopes her poll will prompt parents to “take a more proactive role in developing their child’s ability, and perhaps encourage the parents themselves to start swimming or strengthen their existing ability.” British schools are required to ensure that all elementary age children be able to swim the length of a pool, but some are clearly falling through the net. The U.K.’s Amateur Swimming Association found in a 2012 report that just over half — 51 percent — of children age 7 to 11 couldn’t swim the standard pool length without help. 

By contrast, roughly 80 percent of Americans reported to the Red Cross in 2014 that they could swim — the number dropped to 69 percent for African-Americans — but only 56 percent of these swimmers could perform skills demonstrating that they knew how to save themselves in the water. Of course, the vast majority of them don’t live on an island.

The British swimming poll points candidly to a socio-economic disparity: For working-class respondents, for instance, 33 percent say they can’t swim 25 meters, while only a fifth of middle-class respondents feel uneasy about going the distance. So it’s not just schoolchildren; those of limited means struggle to learn or maintain their skills due to a lack of resources or access as well — a reflection, Axe-Brown says, of “the ever-growing diversity of our society.”

Carolyn, meanwhile, has learned enough to doggy paddle and have fun in her blue backyard wonder. “One day I may even pluck up the courage to have swimming lessons — if only to cut down on our water bill. The water displacement that ensues during my ’swimming’ can resemble a small tsunami.”

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