For years, Charlottesville has debated whether to let the YMCA build in its main city park. A private health club took the city to court, arguing the proposed deal to lease land for a dollar-a-year created unfair competition. A judge ruled otherwise, and last week city council voted 3-2 to let construction begin. The decision came after some citizens made a surprising argument. Thousands of kids could drown, because they don’t know how to swim.
When Gordon Hair’s son Ben was a teenager, he worked as a lifeguard. His father joked that it wasn’t much of a job – sitting around with all those pretty girls in swimsuits, but then he and his son made a surprising discovery.
“When they remodeled his pool and made it a water park, he came home and said, “Dad, I had nine saves today," Hair recalls. " I said, 'What do you mean?”' He said, 'I don’t know. I don’t understand it. The kids were just jumping in the lazy river and sinking straight to the bottom, going down the slippery slides. I asked them, ‘What are you doing?’ and they said, “I just thought that everyone else was doing it, and the bubbles would put me up.’”
That did not surprise Tom Guterbock, Director of the Center for Survey Research at the University of Virginia. He knew that half of all American kids could not swim well, but in Central Virginia the racial disparity was shocking.
“Eighty-two percent of African-American children in our area, ages 4-17, cannot swim well, compared to 29% of other children," he explains. "The category of ‘Can you swim confidently, more than 25 yards --can the kid really get in there and swim?’ Two percent of African-American kids have that level of swimming ability according to what their parents reported to us.”
Those parents offered varied explanations for their kids’ lack of aquatic skill. About 21% said their child was afraid of the water. Twenty-four percent said there was nowhere close for the child to swim, and 16% said access to a pool or lake was too expensive.
And at the First Baptist Church of West Main, the Reverend Hodari Hamilton says there are cultural considerations.
“Prior to Venus and Serena Williams, African Americans – with the exception of Arthur Ashe – didn’t play a whole lot of tennis," he explains. "Of course that has changed, and that was due to the influence of the Williams sisters. So part of it is just culture and sports, but another part of it was the availability of swimming pools. Up until the later 60’s and 70’s, swimming pools were segregated, and that meant African-Americans didn’t get the privilege of learning to swim. Although that’s changing, swimming just wasn’t passed down. If your mother didn’t swim, and your father didn’t swim, then you didn’t swim.”
As a result, Pastor Hamilton says black children are far more likely to drown.
“I was a youth pastor at a church with 20,000 members in Richmond, and one of the jobs I had to do was funeralize children. We did have a drowning victim, and we have a member of the church who lost a nephew, and it’s just the reality that if children don’t learn to swim, they’re attracted to water.”
Gordon Hair also knows the pain of losing a child. His son – the lifeguard – was killed in a car crash when a defective ignition switch prevented the airbags from inflating. His family sued General Motors, won a settlement, and used the money to establish the Ben Hair Swim for Life Foundation.
It trains swim instructors and funds lessons for about 1,200 second graders statewide, working with local partners like the Y, ACAC and Virginia Tech. When the new Y is built in Charlottesville’s McIntire Park, that organization says it will name the pool for Gordon Hair’s son Ben.