Swimming skills can help ensure safety


HOUGHTON – As summer settles in in the Copper Country, many people are taking advantage of the many beautiful lakes to get out and go swimming. However swimming can be dangerous, especially for children, and there are certain steps swimmers can take to protect themselves and others in the water.

“The first rule is never swim alone,” said Matt Williams, aquatic director for the YMCA of Marquette. “Always be in a situation where there are other people around you, preferably lifeguards.”

Regardless of whether or not there is a lifeguard present, Williams advises that it is important for parents to be vigilant in supervising their swimming children. For a child who is not a strong swimmer, Williams advises a parent or other adult always stay within an arm’s reach of the child in case of a problem, especially in water that is murky or unclear.

“Interestingly enough, a lot of drowning situations happen in water that is not very deep. Instead it’s children drowning in water that’s shallow or just slightly over their heads,” said Williams. “A lot of time because a parent thinks their child is okay in waist deep or chest deep water and gets in trouble. A lot of people think of drowning as splashing, noisy and calling for help. That’s not drowning. Drowning is silent. A child who steps in hole or slips over their head and swallows water into their lungs will not come up for calling for help but will go right to the bottom.”

Williams explained that over 80% of child drownings occur in shallow water that is not above the level of the child’s head. To determine when a child does not need to be within arm’s reach of an adult, the YMCA of Marquette tests whether the child can swim a full lap of the pool, or 25 straight yards, and float on both front and back.

“Those two skills should show the child can swim to safety or can roll over and float until they’re calm enough to swim to safety,” Williams said.

Another important precaution to take with non-swimmers is using personal flotation devices at all times. Although not guaranteed to prevent drowning, a personal flotation device should at least give the wearer time to call out for help if he or she steps into a trouble situation.

However skilled a swimmer may be there are certain rules everyone should follow while in the water, such as never swimming alone, avoiding alcohol when swimming and only swimming in designated swimming areas. Williams also advises being careful when jumping or diving, especially into lakes or rivers.

“Never jump in if you cannot determine what water depth is. You should be in a situation where you can explore the depth of the water before jumping or diving in to avoid spinal injury,” Williams said. “Indoor pools usually have signage so it’s pretty clear whether diving is safe but outdoors you just don’t know how deep it is or what may be in the way. Sometimes it’s deceiving Lake Superior is so clear the depth of obstructions can be deceptive.”

Not every adage about swimming safety is necessarily correct. Williams said, for example, there is really no need to wait to start swimming after eating.

“That’s really a myth,” said Williams. “The best way to put it is you should swim when you feel okay to swim.”

Those looking for formal swimming instruction can call Amanda Bowman, aquatic director at Michigan Technological University, at 906-487-2995 for information. Children ages 6 to 18 who already know how to swim but are looking to develop further skills can take part in the Marquette County and Copper Country Killer Whales sessions at Tech which run weekly from Monday through Thursday until August 1st at the Student Development Complex from 1:30 to 3 p.m. Registration is every Monday.

“(The sessions) are a great way for kids to develop quickly. We go four days in a row and you can do multiple weeks,” said Williams. “Their skills develop well and their confidence builds in a short manner of time.”

For questions on the Killer Whales program, call Williams at 906-869-5048 or e-mail him at

Regardless of age or ability, Williams recommends one guideline for every swimmer.

“Be conservative on your swimming skills – don’t test the limits,” Williams said.