LaShana McGee marvels at the exploits of her 4-year-old daughter around their neighborhood pool in Piper, Kan.
“She goes straight to the deep end. It’s crazy,” McGee says. “I don’t know why she does that, but she does. She just jumps right in, and she will swim her way back to the stairs where you get in.”
Having grown up in an African-American household in the urban core of Kansas City, McGee made sure her two girls started swimming lessons early so they didn’t grow up like their mom — with such a fear of the water that she needs the reassurance of her 9-year-old to brave the water slides at Oceans of Fun.
McGee’s mother couldn’t swim, so she didn’t make it a priority for her kids.
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But a new national analysis of a dozen years’ worth of death statistics illustrates the perils that such an indifference to the water poses.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released in the spring by pediatrician and epidemiologist Julie Gilchrist, found that African-Americans younger than 30 are far more likely to drown in swimming pools than people of other races and ethnicities in the same age range.
A spate of deaths earlier this summer reminded Kansas Citians just how dangerous the water can be, but Gilchrist says pool statistics are especially telling when it comes to racial disparities.
“Swimming pools take a lot of the other variables away,” she said. “There aren’t currents, there aren’t underwater obstacles, you know where the sides are, you know where the bottom is, so theoretically, with just basic swim skills, it should be very difficult to drown in a swimming pool.”
Water-safety advocates say true aquatic proficiency extends to knowing lifesaving techniques. And, of course, knowing how to swim confers exercise benefits.
According to the CDC:
Nearly 4,000 people die from drowning each year in the United States.
Nearly 80 percent of the people who die from drowning are male.
Drowning is one of the top three causes of unintentional death for people younger than 30.
Among 11- and 12-year-olds, blacks drowned in pools at 10 times the rate of whites between 1999 and 2010.
Locally, according to medical authorities, about two dozen people drowned in Kansas City between 2008 and 2013. Wyandotte County recorded almost 30 drowning deaths going back nearly 15 years.
Although Wyandotte County has not had a drowning this year, Jackson County had three in the span of eight days in June. All three were males younger than 19, including a 7-year-old biracial boy who died in an apartment complex swimming pool at 3927 Willow Ave. The other deaths occurred in a park pond and a lake.
Minorities accounted for a majority of the drowning deaths in each jurisdiction.
It’s not clear what role, if any, socioeconomic status plays in the national drowning statistics. Gilchrist could not say whether the disparity in drowning between blacks and whites persists across income brackets.
African-Americans tend to predominate among the urban poor. According to the latest census figures, from 2012, the percentage of blacks living below the poverty level was more than double that of whites, 28 percent compared to 13 percent.
But in trying to explain the disparity, Gilchrist and others say financial barriers are likely to blame for poor swimming proficiency among blacks. The problem is exacerbated by the dearth of municipal pools and by households struggling to cobble together jobs and so lacking the time to learn.
That rings true for McGee, the mother from Piper, who grew up at 63rd Street and Walrond Avenue.
Some kids in her neighborhood played in fountains, she says, but her mother did not think that was safe. The Swope Park pool was within walking distance, “but I think finances kept us from going because it wasn’t free — you had to pay — and so, I didn’t really care” about swimming.
In Kansas City, Kan., Mayor Mark Holland says urban youths suffer from a lack of access to aquatic facilities. The city has one public pool — and Holland says it’s little more than a cement pond in the Quindaro neighborhood.
“One pool for 155,000 people,” Holland said. “That’s crazy.”
Urban communities often struggle with the costs of operating and maintaining a public pool, he says.
Holland is hoping to address the imbalance through his plan for a “healthy campus” near downtown, which would include a community center with an Olympic-size pool.
His initial vision was to provide a setting for swim meets hosted by the Kansas City, Kan., school district. Holland credits school Superintendent Cynthia Lane with expanding that idea and working the pool into the physical education curriculum for second- and third-grade students.
“It makes a lot more sense to broaden the vision to teach every child how to swim,” he said.
Nonprofit organizations in the metropolitan area also are working to improve swimming skills among African-Americans and other urban youth.
The Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City last month hosted a four-day water safety program for 5- to 9-year-olds at its facility at 2405 Elmwood Ave. The club offered the program in partnership with The ZAC Foundation, a Connecticut-based group started in 2008 by a couple who lost their 6-year-old son when his arm became stuck in a pool drain.
And the YMCA of Greater Kansas City recently wrapped up its second year of providing water-safety instruction to kids participating in a summer camp put on by City Union Mission in Kansas City, which operates a homeless shelter and other programs.
One of the swimmers at last week’s session in Platte City was 7-year-old Brea Powell.
While doing the front paddle, she says, she realized the importance of learning how to save someone in trouble “because you don’t want other people to drown and be in heaven by themselves.”
With basic steps, such as wearing a life jacket and ensuring adult supervision, drowning is preventable, says Amanda Mitchell, senior aquatics director for the Greater Kansas City YMCA.
Swimming, Mitchell says, is really a life skill that also provides an “avenue of constant health.”
Gilchrist, the CDC researcher, agrees.
She says it’s understandable that African-American parents, unable to swim themselves, would stay away from the water to protect their kids. But the data illustrate the danger of doing that as those kids grow up and find themselves near a pool.
“So that fear and avoidance is not protective as the children age,” Gilchrist said. “At some point, everyone is going to encounter water.”
Mike Sherry is a health reporter with Heartland Health Monitor, a reporting collaboration among KCUR Public Media, KCPT Public Television and KHI News Service.