Clad in a hot pink swim cap and matching goggles, my daughter waded into Lane Six of the pool. She grabbed a barbell-shaped floaty and pushed off. With assistance from an instructor, she attempted to flutter kick with her body extended like a mermaid.
Her legs flailed about, splashing water all over her instructor’s face. She weaved in and out of the lane like a drunk driver in traffic. This first swim lesson was a far cry from The Little Mermaid and more like The Little Engine That Could. Nevertheless, I cheered as if she were my own little Ariel.
Welcome to Swim Girl Summer. That’s been the seasonal moniker around our household ever since my daughter started swim lessons a month ago.
For months she’s hinted in a not-so-subtle way at her desire to conquer the water. Every time Wheel of Fortune flashed a vacation prize package with a brochure-worthy image of a resort with a pool on our TV, my daughter would ask, “Can we go to the beach and the pool, pleazzzze?” To which my wife would say, “Yes, but you need to learn how to swim first.”
Of course, that’s the response she was hoping for. We played right into her hands.
And we didn’t mind.
Drowning statistics spur swim lessons
Swim lessons are something we’ve wanted for her. It would give her another tool to help her navigate life. Giving our daughter, who is Black and autistic, the lifelong gift of swimming was not only a recreational nicety but also, to us, a matter of life and death.
Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death for autistic children of all ages. They face a higher risk of drowning due to a tendency to wander off, according to data from the National Library of Medicine. And when it comes to race, a study commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation found more startling facts. Nearly 64 percent of Black children, 45 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of white children have no or low swimming ability, it found, putting them all at risk for drowning.
Our daughter first took swim lessons as a toddler at the local YMCA and learned water safety in between, but that seemed like eons ago compared to the sprouting 8-year-old she is now. With each new aquatic milestone, my daughter is swimming against the tide of those sobering statistics.
Sometimes you motor, sometimes you float
During her weekly swim lessons, my wife and I sit with other parents in a viewing area behind a large, glass-paneled wall looking out onto the pool. It’s like peering into a giant fishbowl full of kids — all ages, sizes and abilities — as they splish and splash in the shadow of a colorful mural that reads, “The Big Blue World.”
My daughter is always in Lane Six. From my vantage point, I’ve seen her confidence build as she taps her inner Michael Phelps. Sometimes she swims ahead of the other kids in her lane; other times, she stays behind. Sometimes she extends her arms in front of her; other times, they’re bent from fatigue. Her leg kicks are so powerful on occasion that she resembles a motorboat amid the shimmer and bubbles; then there are occasions when a leisurely cruise is just her speed. No matter what, she’s constantly moving forward.
It’s a bit surreal to watch my daughter both succeed and struggle from behind the glass. She can’t hear us, but we speak to her as if she can. (Good job, sweetie. Come on, push through. You got this.) She can see us, but doesn’t pay attention to us; she’s usually laser-focused on the instructor. But I know she feels us with her. She occasionally looks up from the pool with her big toothy grin and waves until we wave back.
There are moments in this Big Blue World when the father in me wants to rush to the other side and coach her. However, I know it’s best for my daughter to figure things out for herself. I won’t always be there.
Perhaps that’s my own lesson this Swim Girl Summer. As my daughter grows older, parenting will often feel like a never-ending toggle between knowing when to dive in and when to stay ashore. I just hope I’m preparing her enough to swim in the world beyond the pool.
All photos by Johnathon Briggs.