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Goodman Pool Opening

Spencer Beach, 13, jumps off a diving board last summer at Goodman Pool in Madison. The pool is one of many offering swimming lessons this summer.

Starting next week nearly 2,000 Madison-area young people will put their swimming and diving skills on display at the annual All-City Swim and Dive meets. These events are remarkable competitions in which participants of all skill levels can have fun, achieve success and learn to cope with disappointment.

Regrettably, the meets offer a highly skewed view of Americans’ water skills.

In fact, the nation’s lack of swimming ability is a daily tragedy. An average of 10 people drown in the United States every day. In Wisconsin, five people drowned over the Fourth of July weekend alone. While in some cases the cause is poor judgment rather than inability to swim, the death toll should draw attention to the fact that too many Americans do not know how to swim.

Consider the country’s youth. A 2010 study found that nearly 70 percent of African-American children and nearly 60 percent of Latino children ages 4 to 18 had limited swimming skills or could not swim at all. The study focused on minorities, but white children surveyed were not much better off, with 40 percent reporting they could not swim well or could not swim at all.

Too many families are failing to make swimming lessons a priority — and thus risking death.

Neither the problem nor the solution is new. Before the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, the biggest loss of life in a single disaster in New York City’s history occurred because the victims did not know how to swim.

On June 15, 1904, a paddlewheel steamboat named the General Slocum caught fire in the East River. Though the boat was not far from shore, 1,021 people died. Most of them were women and children who had never learned to swim.

The General Slocum disaster helped to ignite the nation’s interest in teaching swimming to women and girls, who previously often were excluded from swim lessons because of society’s views on gender-appropriate behavior.

America has advanced a long way since then, but not far enough.

Don’t wait for a tragedy in your family to ignite your interest in teaching your children to swim. Sign them up for lessons. Classes are available, often at low cost, through Madison School and Community Recreation, YMCA of Dane County, neighborhood pools and swim schools.

If you cannot swim, sign up for adult swim classes.

It’s a decision that could save your life.