Savings Lives with Every Stroke

Swimming is one of the great joys of summer. But not for everyone. For the roughly half of U.S. children and adults who can't swim, water can be a source of fear rather than fun. The Swim Strong Foundation is working to change that statistic. This New York-based organization aims to reduce accidental drowning by teaching water safety and swimming education skills. We chatted with Shawn Slevin, founder and executive director of the foundation she introduced in 2006, who discussed the future of swimming and what her organization is doing to help make water safe for everyone.

Congratulations. The Swim Strong Foundation recently celebrated its 16th anniversary. What made you decide to found it? 

The organization's genesis stemmed from my 40 years of experience as a competitive swim coach, working with inexperienced swimmers in my volunteer life. For us, this program was really about life lessons. The competitive swimming piece of it was just the vehicle. So we were teaching our youth things like setting goals, teamwork, resiliency, respect for your teammates, authority figures, how to overcome difficulties, etc. All those things combined are lessons for life that transcend the school and play out from the school room up through the boardroom. They’re lifelong lessons.

Over the years, I was blessed to have a number of young men and women I had worked with come back to me and share how those lessons played out in their lives. I thought, wow, if so much good can come out of this little corner of Woodside, Queens, imagine if we shared that beyond? And so that's how I started the organization: helping children who wanted to become competitive swimmers get there.



How has the organization evolved over the last 16 years?

For the first couple of years of the organization, we were mainly focused on working with competitive swimmers who wanted to be better competitive swimmers. And then people started to ask me why we weren't doing the “Learn to Swim” program and if I knew how pernicious the drowning situation really was.

I'm embarrassed to share that I had no idea. When I started doing the research, I was totally mortified that I didn't understand how huge of an issue this was. Drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional injury death worldwide, accounting for seven percent of all injury-related deaths. And there are an estimated 236,000 annual drowning deaths worldwide.

And so we immediately started the most extensive swim program and did it not just for youth, but we also recognized that most of the children we worked with had parents and grandparents who weren’t swimming either. This is absolutely a generational issue, so it is my goal to get everybody in the pool. We work from age three through seniors. My oldest student is 86 years young.


Statistic provided by the USA Swimming Foundation

What are SwimStrong’s main priorities right now?

They’re really two-fold. To help people understand more about water safety in our daily lives instead of solely a recreational point of view. So that's our educational programming, which is called Know Before You Go. And while the most rigorous portion of that programming is meant to be done in school, other aspects can be done in smaller groups, businesses, swim teams, parent-teacher associations, church groups – really anybody that there's a captive audience for, so the program is flexible. And of course, in addition, our second main priority is to provide actual swimming skills for people to elevate their confidence and competency in the water. 

The education aspect is to try and help people navigate safely, our world which is becoming so much more watery.

What is your ultimate goal for the foundation?

In a perfect world, we really could get this training out to not only 54 million students across the United States but how many millions of people globally. It is information that all of us must have. It has nothing to do with your swimming abilities and everything to do with your understanding of the world we are living in and how it is changing around us – and how water is playing such a huge part in that. It's a huge opportunity, which is why we are looking for partners to help amplify the message and financially support us so we can bring it to schools and push this forward at a low- to no-cost.

How do you think we must adjust our current approach to improving water safety?

Globally, every 70 seconds, someone drowns – and 95% of drowning accidents and deaths are entirely preventable. That first number has not changed in decades. So that tells me that maybe we have been approaching this wrong– we have all these water safety classes, which are really swimming-related and relative to someone's swimming skills. So I'm suggesting that we take a different approach to this and really help people understand water very differently. 

The local swimming pool is one place, and that's the most stable of environments, and then you have backyard ponds, lakes, little streams in local parks, rivers, and oceans. Each one of these bodies of water has its unique behaviors, nature, and dangers. So even skilled swimmers must modify how they approach those different bodies of water to successfully navigate through them. 

So many people put themselves into situations where they get into trouble, not intentionally, just because they don't know. They don't know what they don't know, but they go anyway. So I'm saying if we can help them know, they can at least manage the risk associated with that. Right now, nobody is managing risk at all. I think with multiple approaches, hopefully, we will be able to improve some of these statistics.

What are four easy actions any individual can do to make swimming safer?

  1. Understand the environment that you’re thinking about entering into. There’s a big difference between a backyard pool and a flowing river.
  2. Be sure there is a lifeguard in every swimming environment. 
  3. Never swim alone.
  4. If you’re a parent with a young child, never take your eyes off them in or near the water.

Besides safety, why is it important for people to understand the value of Swim Education?

When you think about it, swimming is the only activity that literally we can do from womb to tomb. Our goal in this is to hit it from a swimming skills angle– it's a full-body workout. From a safety standpoint– we all need to have the skills, but also from a health standpoint. You want people to embrace swimming as part of their exercise machine and understand the value in their ability to use the skills from a recreational/competitive point of view, right? There are 32 water-based sports. So if you swim well, you can knock on any of those doors and explore. 

And last but not least it can be a career for people. We've graduated 250 lifeguards from our organization and helped over 40 individuals joining the military, navy, fire department, and coast guard pass the swim tests for their respective roles. So we are a conduit for first responder professions and we want people to understand that these are really life skills that can be used in many facets of your life.

Thank you so much, Shawn!