Building little swimmers | by Debra Melani|photos Mike Lewis

Missy Franklin, Mike Lewis photography

Posted on Fri, Jan 29, 2016

Colorado’s golden girl ‘Makes a Splash’ for kids

Missy Franklin Learn to Swim USA Swimming, Mike Lewis PhotographyIn a grainy family video, Missy Franklin’s dad tapes his toddler ̶ decked out in short, pink overalls and a denim-blue bonnet ̶ as she tosses leaves and sticks into a gurgling stream. Mesmerized by the water, Missy keeps her mother on high alert ̶ she follows the little tot like a shadow, taking her eyes off of her only once to flash a worried glance at her husband. Finally, Mom hooks her fingers through the back of Missy’s overalls, easing her own tension, and preventing an unwanted nosedive by her daughter.

Most parents can relate to the scene. For kids, water presents an invitation for fun. For parents, it provides a medium for disaster. In the mother-daughter Franklin case, the feelings went beyond the norm. Franklin’s mom holds a life-long fear of water, learning only swimming basics in her 30s, and wading into pools mostly for her daughter’s sake. “Even to this day, she will not go into the ocean,” Franklin says of her mother. “That really scares her. And so she didn’t want me feeling like that.”

Her mom’s mission was accomplished. Franklin, who became a four-time Gold medalist by age 17, loved the water from the start. “I mean, bath time was my favorite time as a baby. If you just got me wet, I was the happiest little kid ever,” says Franklin, now 20, as she shared her childhood story amid the clanking cups and humming espresso machines of a Starbucks in Centennial, one of her regular neighborhood haunts. Her mother put Franklin in parent/infant swimming lessons at 6 months old with the intent of keeping her safe. Today, Franklin has joined the USA Swimming Foundation as an ambassador to boost its mission, one that mirrors that of her mother’s.

Exercise for “life”

USA Swimming, Missy Franklin Learn To Swim Now swimming professionally with her eyes on the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Franklin says she took the ambassador position for two reasons: to give back to the organization that helped her and so many other athletes reach their Olympic dreams and to help keep the country’s kids safer by encouraging swimming lessons. “It just breaks my heart that we still have so many kids drowning every day,” Franklin says, her generally upbeat personality fading momentarily. “I mean, it’s preventable.”

About 10 people drown each day in the United States, two of them children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many more suffer repercussions of near-drownings. While studies are limited, there are enough for health experts to say swimming lessons can help prevent some of these tragedies. “We have information that shows kids are actually 88 percent safer around the water after taking formal swimming lessons,” says Debbie Hesse, executive director of the USA Swimming Foundation, headquartered in Colorado Springs. “No one is 100 percent safe around water, not even Missy Franklin. But we feel those are pretty good odds.”

Roadblocks exist for many parents: the cost of lessons; a fear of water. “If a parent doesn’t know how to swim, there’s only a 13-percent chance their child will learn to swim,” Hesse says. In response, nationally publicized messages from Franklin, some with her mother, will begin airing soon about the importance of child water safety and the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative. The initiative provides grants to swimming programs across the country, including in Colorado, that agree to offer free or reduced lessons and/or water-safety classes (see for local partners).

Missy Franklin Learn To Swim USA SwimmingMain factors influencing drowning risk:

  • Poor swimming ability
  • Lack of barriers to prevent water access
  • Lack of close supervision
  • Nearby water access
  • Failure to wear life jackets
  • Alcohol use
  • Seizure disorders

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Jeanette Anderson, Greenwood Athletic and Tennis Club

Spotting the talent: Jeanette Anderson, one of Franklin’s first private instructors at age 6, Greenwood Athletic and Tennis Club
“Missy was darling. She was always happy, and she listened, and she was able to catch on immediately with just about anything I gave her to do in our lessons. She never got tired. She never got bored. She just loved it. I remember telling D.A. (mom) at one point that Missy was going to be really good, very good. And she said: How do you know? She’s just a little girl! I’ve never come across anyone like Missy, and I first started coaching when I was 18.

Tips for taking the plunge

All kids won’t find the water as magical as Franklin did. Her family video collection overflows with scenes of her splashing with joy in bathtubs, swimming pools and ocean waves. But Franklin and other swimming experts believe that getting kids in the water as soon as possible can help quash fears and build safe, little swimmers. “It’s something they have fun doing together, interacting with a parent or grandparent,” says Heidi Adderly, general manager of SafeSplash Swim School in Parker, which starts babies at 6 months with parents in classes. Franklin and Adderly, who also swam competitively through college, offer a few other tips for parents seeking classes for kids:

Find a program that emphasizes water safety and take part. Parent involvement helps with ensuring water safety, Adderly says. “For instance, we have parents come up with family rules, so like they have to say the word ‘orange’ before the child can get in the water. It teaches kids they can’t just go and jump in with their friends, that that is unsafe, and there are consequences.”

Find an instructor that matches a child’s personality and needs. “We know every kid learns differently,” Adderly says. ”Some kids might respond to someone who has a really fun and playful personality. Others, especially upper levels, where we’re teaching more competitive swimming skills, might need someone who’s more like a swim coach who might push them a little bit more.”

Be flexible and involved. Parents must communicate with their instructors and their kids, Franklin says. “If you put them in a class and maybe they are having a problem with their instructor, or if they are doing things that are a little above their level, or if they are just not having fun, that’s not going to make them want to get in the water.” Children’s needs and fears can also change as they grow, Adderly says. “Sometimes starting out as babies, they might just take off and just do awesome in the water, but then when they hit a different developmental stage, they might regress, and we’ll slow down a little bit until they get over that hump.”

Foster progression. Group classes generally start at age 3, and most kids respond well to learning with their peers, Adderly says. “They get that social interaction.” Private, one-on-one lessons are for parents who are looking for something more specific that they want us to work on,” she says. That might be a fear their child needs to overcome, or, as in Franklin’s case, a talent they want honed. Franklin’s parents put her in a private class at age 6, when her gift was becoming evident. “I still hold the 6-and-under, 25-yard backstroke record for Rocky Mountain Swim League,” Franklin says with a grin. “That is pretty exciting.”

Most children won’t become Olympic stars if their parents put them in swim programs. But learning the skill provides social interaction, builds self-esteem, offers a great exercise for life, and, most importantly, could prevent a tragedy, Franklin says. “My coach always says, ‘Swimming is a sport that does two things that no other sport does: It can save your life, and it’s something that you can do for the rest of your life. It’s so true.”

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