Red Cross making big push on swim lessons

Judy Harvey
For Sun-Times Media
July 8 11:47 a.m.
Signs of swimmer duress
  • Treading water and waving an arm
  • Doggie paddling with no forward progress
  • Hanging onto a safety line
  • Floating on their back and waving their arms
  • Arms extended side or front, pressing down for support, but making no forward progress
  • Positioned vertically in the water but not kicking legs
  • Underwater for more than 30 seconds
  • Floating at surface, face-down, for more than 30 seconds

Water Safety Guidelines
Water safety extends beyond pools and beaches. We do a lot of boating, kayaking and fishing on rivers and lakes in the Chicago area and the Red Cross wants to make sure people remember swimming competence in these situations as well.
“Any time you are in any water vessel out in the open water, you have to pay close attention to your surroundings. People have to pay attention to rip tides and strong currents,” said Patricia Kemp, communications manager for the Greater Chicago Region of the American Red Cross.
The American Red Cross recommends life jackets that carry the U.S. Coast Guard seal be worn at all times by all ages. Check labels for specific use and size by weight.
For more safety information, go to

We are a nation that loves our fun in the water.

Even here in the Midwest, far from any ocean coastline, each summer we head toward the nearest body of water to enjoy some leisure time. Whether it is Lake Michigan and the Chicago River to the DuPage, Fox and Illinois rivers in the suburbs, Chicago-area residents are only a short drive away from a natural waterway for a day of swimming, boating or fishing.

Let’s not forget all of the new water parks and large community pools that have popped up all over the six-county area in recent years.

A recent national survey by the American Red Cross showed that 80 percent of those surveyed said that water recreation was part of their summer plans.

But, while we might like to play in the water, barely half of adults are really competent in the water, according to that survey.

“A lot of people say, ‘yeah, I know how to swim,’ but do they know what that really means?” said Connie Harvey, director of Centennial Initiatives for the Red Cross, which is marking 100 years of its water safety and swimming program.

According to the Red Cross, knowing how to swim means mastering these five basic skills:

  • Tread water for a minute without using a flotation device.
  • Go under the water completely and return to the surface.
  • Swim the length of a standard swimming pool without stopping.
  • When at a pool, be able to exit not using a ladder.
  • Jump into the water, get to the surface, turn around a full circle and then find a way out of the water.

So, even if half of the adults surveyed said they can perform these skills, only four of 10 of adults responding said “yes” to ever having a formal swim lesson. The Red Cross wants to move that number higher and is making this a priority this year.

“We want people to enjoy summer, but water safety is not to be treated lightly,” sad Patricia Kemp, communications manager for the Greater Chicago Region of the American Red Cross.

The Red Cross feels so strongly about initiative that the organization is on a nationwide campaign to get as many people access to swim lessons as possible.

“We are working with our certified-trained providers to see how people can get swim lessons” in addition to swim safety and CPR, Harvey said.

The organization is coordinating with park districts and community organizations with licensed instructors to get the word out and make lessons for adults more accessible and attractive. Adults can feel embarrassed that they cannot swim or even feel self-conscious being in a swimsuit.

Therefore, the lessons should make the participants feel at ease, Harvey said.

“We are now customizing our classes for adults depending on their competency and what they are looking to get out of it,” she said.

Getting parents up to the task is important because they cannot leave all of the responsibility up to lifeguards on duty at pools and beaches.

“If you are supervising someone in that situation, you need to be able to handle yourself in that situation,” Harvey said. “If your child is in the 12-foot water, then you better be able to handle yourself there.”

With very young children, parents should always be within arm’s reach, she said. Floaties “are just toys and can provide a false sense of security,” Harvey said.

And since just 4 in 10 parents of children ages 4 to 17 report that their child can perform all five basic swimming skills, the Red Cross is trying to get more children access to lessons. Therefore, the organization is coordinating with summer camps to offer swim lessons for those children who might be at a higher risk of never getting to a class.

“Often times, these are children of working moms who don’t have the abilities or time to get the kids to facilities for swimming lessons or it is a financial issue,” Harvey said. “They paid for summer camp (as a day care) but then cannot afford to pay for swim class.”

It is important to reach children at a young age. Fear of the water and a lack of access to pools or lessons were listed by adults as the main barriers to childhood swimming, according to the survey.

“Swim lessons have to become the norm for people of all ages,” Harvey said.

About 2 million people each year receive swim lessons directly through the Red Cross.

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