TRAVERSE CITY — Young people in the Grand Traverse region are drowning at a pace that dwarfs such deaths elsewhere in Michigan, and poor swimming skills are the impetus for a local YMCA’s $17 million construction project that will include two pools and resources to teach 2,000 kids each year how to swim.
Construction is on schedule to open Grand Traverse Bay YMCA’s facility on Silver Lake Road in spring 2014. The new location will host an eight-lane, competition pool with a diving well, plus a warm water, recreational learn-to-swim training pool that won’t chill young children.
“The whole reason that started this project off in 2000 was the need to teach kids to swim,” said Tom Van Deinse, CEO of the YMCA. “Our poll showed us that 40 percent of seventh graders can’t swim 25 yards and we have three times the state drowning rate per capita.”
“It just amazes me that kids are growing up here never having learned how to swim,” Van Deinse said.
Owen Williamson, 17, drowned May 31 in Grand Traverse County’s Twin Lakes Park. The Traverse City West High student was the third young person to drown in the park’s lake since 2010, and in recent years other drownings occurred in Grand Traverse Bay in Traverse City, in Torch Lake, and in Lake Michigan near Leland and Frankfort. At least six people age 21 or younger drowned in the region since 2010.
The Record-Eagle this week surveyed more than a dozen TCAPS high school students and just one, Tori Bartos, 16, said her mother placed her in swimming lessons as a child.
Bartos said she’s comfortable swimming several pool lengths without stopping.
Other students who spoke with the Record-Eagle acknowledged they weren’t strong swimmers. Some said their parents won’t allow them to go in water over their heads. Several said they more or less figured out how to swim on the fly.
“I learned to swim when somebody threw me off a boat,” said James Soberstein, 17, who doesn’t consider himself a strong swimmer.
Jesslyn Thorpe, 17, contends lessons aren’t necessary.
“It comes natural. You get in the water and you see everybody else do it and you just swim,” she said. “If you want to swim, you just do it.”
Lakes, ponds, rivers and Lake Michigan and its bays serve as swimming magnets, but ample water bodies aren’t the root of the drowning problem, Van Deinse said. Instead, the area lacks facilities to ensure children have a chance to learn how to swim.
Most northern Michigan schools, unlike many downstate counterparts, don’t have swimming pools or teach swimming.
“We couldn’t afford one if you built it for us,” said Keith Smith, Kingsley Area Schools’ superintendent.
Pools are expensive to operate and it’s difficult for northern Michigan districts such as Traverse City Area Public School that survive on the state’s base foundation grant to fund a pool, said Paul Soma, TCAPS’ chief financial officer and chief operations officer.
Soma previously worked at Walled Lake Consolidated School District, which had a pool in each of its three high schools. But the downstate district annually receives $19 million to $20 million more in state education funding, Soma said.
TCAPS also doesn’t make use of the Grand Traverse County Civic Center pool for swim instruction, other than for special education students, said Jayne Mohr, a district associate superintendent.
The major reasons: cost and time, Mohr said. Transportation, plus changing time at the pool, would consume significant instructional time.
Kingsley ran a regular learn-to-swim program at the Civic Center pool, but dropped the program this year because of budget restraints.
“I would agree it’s a great thing to teach all kids to swim, but it’s competing against the ability to purchase materials for the classroom,” Smith said
Van Deinse said the YMCA can make it affordable for schools to teach swimming.
“We’ve been talking with the schools and we are going to teach every kid from our region how to swim,” Van Deinse said. “That’s about 2,000 kids we hope to have contact with for a six-week program.”
The YMCA would target third graders in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Antrim and Kalkaska counties. Van Deinse said children can be taught swimming basics in six weeks.
TCAPS officials said so far their discussions have been preliminary and theoretical, but they are interested in further exploring swimming program possibilities.
“Everybody loves the concept, and hopefully where there’s a will there’s a way,” Soma said.