Nobody goes into the water planning to drown.
Not Annazar Nazarov, a 44-year-old Memphian who got caught in a rip current off the beach near Destin earlier this month. Or William Haithcox, 48, who went in to rescue him. Or two other people on the same stretch of beach that week.
Or Demavius Bailey, 15, and Cameron Hogg, 13, who drowned on the same day in separate incidents in Memphis community center swimming pools five years ago.
And certainly not the dozens of kids at the Bickford Aquatic Center the other day who eagerly raised their arms when lifeguard Christian Kimble asked for a show of hands from those who could swim. Trouble was, several of the same hands shot up when Kimble asked "how many of you DON'T know how to swim?"
Kimble, an 18-year-old graduate of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences, knows better. He learned to swim at a Memphis community center when he was 16.
"I used to be like that," he said. "I hated the water. I was afraid of it. A lot of people automatically say they can swim when you ask them, but my definition is swim competitive [on the club's swim team]."
Kimble was one of several instructors working with some 70 kids Tuesday at Bickford, one of 17 Memphis community pools, at what was billed as "The World's Largest Swim Lesson."
"We're trying to change the culture," said Anthony Norris, board chairman of sponsor Splash Mid-South. "Swimming is not common in the minority community, but Memphis has a long history of African-American swimmers. Tarik Sugarmon (attorney) swam in college, and Willie Gregory (director of community relations for Nike) was a lifeguard. So this is more of a renaissance."
Fortunately, the swimming pools have been spared from city budget cuts. More than 5,000 Memphians have learned to swim in the last five years, and there has not been a drowning since the double fatalities that closed pools in 2008.
"Some of these kids are so frightened when they get in the pool that they start hyperventilating," said swim coach Cynthia Dickerson of Splash Mid-South. "It may take them two or three days to put their head in the water. Some of the older ones are embarrassed and may not come back after the first day. And some go on to be on the swim team and work as lifeguards."
Kimble's method combines patience and persistence.
"Once they get in the pool, I don't let them leave it," he said.
He took a group of eight kids through five steps — blow bubbles, submerge face, open eyes, bob up and down, and pick up a yellow plastic shovel underwater. Then the moment of truth: pushing off underwater from the side of the pool, arms extended with hands together, and gliding a few yards. A few kids froze and others came up sputtering. Kimble's assistant, 12-year-old Kentarrius Braxton, demonstrated perfect technique with a powerful push and flipper kick that sent him nearly half-way across the pool. In two years, he has lowered his time to 1:13 in the 100 meters.
He grinned and nodded when I asked him if kids lie about being able to swim.
"I said that too," he said.
This is not unique to children or the inner-city. When I was in Florida on vacation last week, I talked to former Memphian John Farmer, owner of Yellowfin Ocean Sports. I griped about the double-red flags on the beach, which meant swimming was prohibited even though the sun was out and the waves were only a couple feet high. Drive 600 miles and the blanking-bureaucrats threaten to fine you if you go in the blanking-ocean. An ambulance roared past, siren blaring, while Farmer rented me a kayak.
"That means they pulled someone out of the water," he said.
"I know," he said. "There have been four drownings in Walton County in the last 48 hours," a statement confirmed by the local paper.
The all-time worst day was June 8, 2003, when eight people drowned. One of them was a lifeguard on vacation.