Swimming Saves Lives Program Summary

For the first time in its 30-year history, the Walnut Creek Masters (WCM) in conjunction with the City of Walnut Creek and United States Masters Swimming,  has brought the gift of swimming to a small subset of the community’s adults who either had little success with past lessons or generally feared water.  A summary of how the Swimming Saves Lives pilot program began and was organized is outlined, the volunteer and student experience highlighted, and ideas for how WCM would like to continue helping Swimming Saves Lives pilot program students mentioned.

Last year the Walnut Creek Masters Board decided to use its tremendous swimming asset base to help the local community.  Using its 400-plus excellent, community-minded swimmers and the experience of renowned USMS Coach Kerry O’Brien the team decided to organize a free adult swim lesson program for the local Walnut Creek community. At about the same time, O’Brien had been observing adult lessons while  coaching on the pool deck. Many of the struggles adults had was in the expectation that they needed to learn breathing, body comfort, position and stroke mechanics simultaneously, O’ Brien noticed. If the breathing difficulty factor were taken out, he wondered, could you get an adult beginner swimmer to make more progress? He investigated using Finis snorkels that students could place securely on their face and breathe in through their mouth and out through their nose effortlessly in the water. Then he built an approximately four-hour program over three back-to-back nights that enabled students to comfortably use the snorkels, learn rhythmic breathing,  graduate to kickboards and finally learn the basics of the free-style stroke. He wrote a syllabus of lessons using a one-to-one teacher-to-student ratio.  When WCM put out a blurb in the City of Walnut Creek newsletter The Nutshell recruiting students for the class, swimmers of all beginning levels responded immediately. Although there were only 15 slots, 50 students wanted to sign-up.

Leveraging O’ Brien’s expertise were nearly 20 WCM volunteers who were recruited through the Team’s 2011 annual meeting to be instructors. Momentum around Swimming Saves Lives was built through informative e-mail communications starting four months prior to the lesson dates of Aug. 27, 28, and 29. Volunteer camaraderie and buy-in emerged through a pizza social and frequent updates as to who the volunteer’s student population would be and how training and teaching would work.

The 17 students who participated in and evaluated the final program vouched for its effectiveness, with most saying that the three, one-hour and fifteen minute sessions established a solid base for them to continue on their journey of swimming. "I got everything out of it that I was hoping for and so much more.  I wouldn't consider myself a swimmer just yet, but I have the confidence that I just might be one in the future,” one swimmer wrote. Another swimmer said he felt his body rejuvenated from the water and the three-day program helped alleviate aches and pains he normally tried to soothe in a hot-tub. In addition, he now had the courage to train for a triathlon. Most liked how instruction was supplemented in the classroom before they got in the water.

The volunteer experience was just as important. Volunteers expressed how they really didn’t understand  the plight and challenges of the non-swimmer until having to put themselves in the shoes of their students. This was achieved by a Train-the-Trainer session prior to lessons starting. Many volunteers said they took for granted how easy swimming was for them and learned how to boil down the most fundamental aspects of it by taking the process step-by-step to avoid intimidating or discouraging their students.

The experience was so rewarding and the cry for more lessons so high that SSL students are invited to have their progress checked during WCM’s regularly scheduled Masters work-outs on Thursday evenings in September. WCM hopes to run Swimming Saves Lives again next year.