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Local kids aim for record books by learning to swim

HYATTSVILLE, Md. – It was a swim class with global reach.

Tens of thousands of kids in more than 700 community pools, water parks and aquatic centers around the world joined at 11 a.m. EDT Tuesday in what was billed as “the world’s largest swimming lesson.”

Last year more than 24,000 swimmers participated worldwide. Organizers say they will need several days to confirm the total for this year but they hope to set a record.

The goal is to raise awareness of the need for all children to learn to swim and reduce the risk of drowning. Too many children around the world can’t swim, and that simple fact is putting their lives at risk.

USA Swimming, the national governing body of the sport, says 70 percent of black children, 60 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of white children in the United States can’t swim.

Prince George’s County, with its racially diverse population, is making an all-out effort to teach its young residents to swim. And when the global swim class began, the Rollingham-Chillum Splash Pool in the Hyattsville area was packed with youngsters.

It was a welcome sight to Kathleen Reilly, who heads the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Pool Safely campaign. She says all children need to be taught to respect the water.

“What we find in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, is that you have a large population of African-American children who don’t know how to swim,” says Reilly, “And they don’t learn how to swim at all because it is not in their family tradition.”

Ruby Brown agrees.The Hyattsville grandmother brought her 8-year-old grandson Barry in for swim lessons, even though his mother had grave reservations.

“Their parents, grandparents are fearful of the water, and that is going to filter down to the kids until we break that cycle,” Brown says, looking through the glass walls that surround the pool.

Reilly is hopeful that the tide is beginning to turn.

Sandra Dove, who oversees pools and swimming programs in Prince George’s County for the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, says she is seeing the change. Swim classes are completely full at all 12 county-run pools, and most have waiting lists of at least 15 kids.

Another hopeful sign: The Prince George’s school district now has a program, funded through USA Swimming, that provides free swim lessons for kids at county indoor pools. Last year, five schools were involved in the program. This year, there are 23.

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