One of the major incentives for the YMCA to launch a fund drive in 2000 to build a $12 million facility that will include two swimming pools was “the need to teach kids to swim,” said Tom Van Deinse, CEO of the YMCA.
A poll done by the Y showed “that 40 percent of seventh graders (in the region) can’t swim 25 yards and we have three times the state drowning rate per capita.”
Those are shocking figures, particularly in a place so defined by water. The most prominent geographic features in the county are the East and West arms of Grand Traverse Bay, Boardman Lake and the Boardman River. Lake Michigan dominates our weather and our sense of place. There’s water, water everywhere.
The poll has proven to be tragically prophetic. Traverse City West Senior High student Owen Williamson, 17, drowned May 31 in Grand Traverse County’s Twin Lakes Park, the third young person to drown there since 2010.
Nicholas Lawrence Wayne Cooper, 17, of Maple City, drowned at Twin Lakes in 2010 attempting to swim from a beach to another shore. Daniel Edward Doherty, 19, of Traverse City, drowned there in 2011 while searching for rocks.
In recent years other drownings have 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 have drowned in the region since 2010.
All that makes the Y’s mission even more compelling. The new facility off Silver Lake Road, which is due to open next spring, will have 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. It will also have the resources to teach 2,000 kids each year how to swim .
That’s a mission that should be fully embraced by parents and schools across the region; no child should make it through elementary school without getting at least one series of learn-to-swim lessons at the Y.
The Y wants to target third-graders in Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Benzie, Antrim and Kalkaska counties. Van Deinse said children can be taught swimming basics in six weeks. Refresher courses in later years would help sharpen skills.
School districts must seriously address the need to make swimming lessons a part of the curriculum, as hard as that will be to schedule and coordinate.
Until then, Grand Traverse County needs to take meaningful steps to secure the beach at Twin Lakes Park and ensure that the drowning toll stops. Now.
Grand Traverse County Commissioner Christine Maxbauer said she went to the beach in 2011 following Doherty’s death and asked parents about safety. Many expressed concerns about a steep and unexpected drop-off near shallow waters frequented by swimmers.
“They said ‘Mark the drop-off, mark the swim area, give us a fighting chance,’” Maxbauer said.
Maxbauer said she contacted then-County Administrator Dennis Aloia with her concerns, and buoys were in place the next day.
Grand Traverse County Parks and Recreation Director Jason Jones said the Michigan Municipal Risk Management Authority, a public entity self-insurance pool, advised county officials to only post a warning sign near the lake.
Today, a sign at the beach warns “Unsupervised facility swim at your own risk deep water.”
There are no buoys or ropes to define a swim area and drive home concerns about safety and deep water.
People familiar with the lake say there is a steep drop-off just 12 to 30 feet off shore, which is very different than most beaches, where one can often wade out many feet on a gently-sloping beach until the water is waist-level.
“The only shallow part (at Twin Lakes) is what you can see here” a man who said he has swum at the lake many times told a reporter. And the water is cold.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources said the small lake is 67 feet deep.
The county has to act now to ensure that swimmers realize how close to shore the drop-off is; 15 feet is very, very close - the average car, by example, is 18 feet long; go that far, and a swimmer can be in cold water that is well over his or her head.
Buoys, ropes and warning signs are a minimum; closing the beach must be considered. Doing nothing is unacceptable.