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To Swim or Not to Swim

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Corpus Christi is hot.  As the mercury of another scorchingly hot summer continues to rise, finding ways to stay cool remains an important concern.

Corpus Christi is also poor.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Nueces County is not just one of the poorest counties in Texas but one of the poorest counties in the United States.

Sadly, Corpus Christi is also fat.  A major men’s health and fitness magazine recently dubbed it “America’s Fattest City.”  At least Corpus isn’t alone:  four other Lone Star State cities are also in the top ten.   

The city budget is tight.  Finding ways to trim the city’s $668 million budget remains a challenge.  Significant budget cuts are on the table, particularly to the aquatics portion of the city’s parks and recreation budget.  Cities are increasingly replacing swimming pools–which require lifeguards and are more costly to maintain–with “splash ponds” and similar water features, some of them quite elaborate.  Bayfront Park is an example of such an operation, and the proposed FY 2010-2011 budget proposes $300,000 for the park’s operation, a handsome sum in local terms. Splash ponds might be pretty, but no one is ever going to learn to swim in them.

The ability to take a dip in a cool pool on a hot summer day is a lifeline for many residents of Corpus Christi, particularly the city’s children.  Closing pools, restricting hours, and terminating or postponing programs may seem like a financially prudent idea when looked at on paper in an air conditioned office, but the predictable consequences will harm an already challenged, and disproportionately minority, population.

Hispanic and African-American kids, for the most part, do not know how to swim, and cuts like those in Corpus Christi, a city on an ocean, don’t help. But making matters worse, the nation’s governing body of competitive swimming, USA Swimming, is not doing enough to help poor kids learn how to swim.

Keith Springer is one of Corpus Christi’s top swim instructors and coaches.  He is also a certified high school history teacher and a former Coast Guard rescue swimmer who was awarded the Coast Guard Commendation Medal for saving a life. He has perhaps the best understanding of the importance of youth swimming in Corpus Christi.  Based at the Corpus Christi Natatorium, the city’s top swimming facility, he instructs dozens of classes for kids of all ages, from age three to high school age and beyond.  Twelve hour workdays and weekends are routine.  Almost all of his students are Mexican American or African American.  All of his students are poor.

The Natatorium is a jointly owned and operated swim facility, 80 percent owned by the Corpus Christi Independent School District and 20 percent by the City of Corpus Christi.  Most of the facility’s usage is educational, but public and general swimming are also available.  USA Swimming certified the Corpus Christi Natatorium as a short course yard (SCY) race course in October 2008, a significant achievement. Private swim lessons are offered; instructors, many of them affiliated with USA Swimming, rent portions of the facility for this purpose.

Given the customary sacrosanctness of “public safety” portions of the city budget, recent budget cycles have entailed the usual competition between funding for the arts and the parks and recreation budget.  Also at issue is the debatable manner in which Corpus Christi leaders seem to be carrying out the quality of life mandate of the city’s mission statement.  City resolution 028176 which furnished city staff with financial planning and budgeting guidance does not actually define what “quality of life” in this context means, but does furnish considerable guidance about how to preserve the city’s bond rating.  

City budgeting is of course a delicate art, and entails difficult choices.  But the choices are exacerbated when quality of life is not properly defined in planning documents and when the benefits and burdens of budget proposals, particularly on the poor and pigmented majority of the city’s population are not correctly delineated.

“Most of the children I coach are on free or reduced lunch and they would have no place to go if they weren’t here,” says Coach Springer.  “Many of them couldn’t even swim when they came to me, now we’re competing in swim meets and doing well in them.”  He ought to know; during his tenure as coach of the Carroll High School swim team he reinvigorated the competitiveness of the squad and produced one of the best swim teams in South Texas.  The squad was district champion three years in a row and he was named All South Texas swim coach of the year for three consecutive years by the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.  

But for Springer it’s not just about competitive swimming, it’s also about opportunity.  He is on the front lines addressing the long noted crisis of non-swimming in the country’s minority communities.  Many of the parents of his students have never set foot in a swimming pool.  Many of the ones that have, have never gone past the shallow end.  The national statistics are daunting, and USA Swimming has recently produced a report, one of many, documenting the severity of the problem, particularly in the African American community.

First the national and state data.  According to 2006 CDC data, of all children 1-4 years old who died, 26% died from drowning.  Fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional injury-related death for children ages 1 to 14 years.  A swimming pool is 14 times more likely than a motor vehicle to be involved in the death of a child age 4 and under.  Children under five and adolescents between the ages of 15-24 have the highest drowning rates.  In 2008 and 2009 Texas had the second highest unintentional drowning rate in the United States.

Interestingly, according to USA Swimming’s Diversity in Swimming study, “fear trumps finance” as the biggest barrier to minority participation in swimming.  Most lower income families would not participate in swimming programs even if they were free, claims the disquisition, due to a “fear of drowning” on the part of parents.  It is a fairly remarkable finding; apparently minority children do not learn to swim not because of a lack of family dinero, but because of family water dread.  The solution, therefore, is not advocacy for more municipal attention to equitability in swim programs, but better marketing of existing programs.  “Make a Splash” is the organization’s national initiative, and has enlisted the services of Cullen Jones, an African American Olympic gold medal swimmer.  One of the goals of the program is to offer free or reduced swim instruction to poor and minority children.

But as Springer sees it, there are problems with the study.  The Corpus Christi Natatorium has had USA Swimming programs, and his experiences with them are instructive.  For one thing, he finds the study’s claim that “fear trumps finances” to be spurious.  “I have more kids who want to take swim lessons than I can accommodate” and “family members are often at the pool and are very interested in in what their kids are doing.”  As far as the USA Swimming programs at the Natatorium are concerned, Springer thinks that the people running them are more interested in their careers in the business of swimming than in actually helping poor black and brown kids learn how to swim.  “USA Swimming is mainly concerned about competitive swimming” and “that costs money.”  “The kids can’t afford the fees” and apparently “there was even a family that was threatened with a lawsuit for back tuition by the local USA Swimming chapter when they couldn’t afford to pay the $300 participation fee.”  In his opinion USA Swimming programs are elitist, close in character to golf and tennis programs that similarly shirk serious analysis of the organizational and structural barriers minority populations face.  He finds the victim-blaming nature of the diversity study to be symptomatic of deeply rooted attitudes that pervade the organization.

What to do?  On the one hand, cities such as Corpus Christi are cutting swim programs in order to save money.  One option has been outsourcing some of these programs to organizations such as the YMCA, or the “Y” as it has now rebranded itself.  Corpus Christi has already done this with the pools serving largely African American populations near the historic D.N. Leathers public housing project and the surrounding Hillcrest neighborhood.  The YMCA program at that pool–known as the T.C. Ayers pool–is only available for two months during the summer between June and August, and children wishing to participate must be participants in YMCA programs, such as the YMCA Youth Net Tutoring, the 21st Century Program and the YMCA Summer Camps.

Municipal swimming pools in other parts of town, for example Collier Pool, do not have YMCA program like this.  Their maintenance and staffing budget come from city funds.

USA Swimming certified coaches do not offer swim lessons at T.C. Ayers and similar neighborhood pools; it’s not financially worthwhile.  They rent space at the Natatorium instead, and offer swim lessons to kids whose parents usually already know how to swim and who can afford to pay.  White kids.

There is another irony. The Hillcrest neighborhood of Corpus Christi is situated right next to some of the nation’s most important oil refineries and has extremely bad air.  In 2007 CITGO became the first refiner in U.S. history found guilty by a jury of violating the Clean Air Act.

If you pay a visit to the Natatorium and observe the swim instruction, it’s usually pretty easy to tell the difference between Coach Springer’s children and the students participating in USA Swimming certified swim programs.   If you ask Coach Springer, he’ll tell you that’s the real reason behind the race and class disparity in swimming, at least in Corpus Christi.  Instead of blaming minority youth and their parents, USA Swimming ought to instead undertake a serious examination of its organizational and business practices.  

The city’s broke, kids need to learn how to swim, and private sector organizations aren’t necessarily the answer.  Splash ponds aren’t going to teach these kids how to avoid drowning.  Nor are aesthetically pleasing bayfront water features with pretty pulsating lights and rotating sprinkler heads.

Dr. Fred L. McGhee is one of the first African American diving officers in U.S. Navy history.  He is a pretty decent swimmer.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of The Texas Observer. The author is solely responsible for its content.