Become a Water Bender

Jen and Zac having fun under water at the pool

Courtesy photo: Jen & Zac – Daughter & Grandson

Tips and stories to be one with the water

By Miguel Castillo

The skill of swimming has been very impactful in my life, and I know each family has their personal swim story. As I share some stories and some easy tips, you can start this summer by helping your family write their own swim story.

I cannot remember a time when I could not swim. We lived in the middle east from when I was a baby until I was about 5 years old. The only way to escape the heat of the desert was for my mom to take us every day to the pool down the street. My mom told me that one day I just jumped in the water and began swimming. At the time, I was probably about 2 years old, and I have been swimming ever since.

When we moved to Santa Fe, one of the first things my mom did was to get me on the local swim team. My mom had grown up in Taos and learned to swim in the river. She would pedal her bike eight miles out to the Ponce de Leon hot springs because she just loved the water so much, and she wanted all of her kids to be strong swimmers, too.

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When my two youngest daughters were born, one of the first things I wanted to teach them was to swim. Starting when they were just babies, we would go to the Fort Marcy pool where they have a small, warm-water tot pool. My girls became very happy being in the water, and as they grew older, swimming was always one of the top things they wanted to do. We spent many Sundays at the Lamplighter Motel swimming in the Plant Pool and then eating lunch at India House. They joined the Santa Fe Seals, where they learned to love the sport of competitive swimming along with swimming for fun. They took private lessons from a great coach, and we traveled to many meets together and many of our family vacations centered around their competitions. They met many friends along the way that they still communicate with today.

Young girl at pool putting flippers on

Courtesy photo: Layla with her swim fins.

When my youngest daughter was 6, we went on a trip to Cancun. I wanted them to swim in warm ocean water and learn to love swimming in the ocean like I did. We went to a water park and enjoyed swimming and seeing beautiful ocean fish. As we were swimming, my friend lost his ear gauge and asked me if I could dive down and try to find it. I told my girls to hang tight and stay put while I swam down a couple of times to find the gauge, and I did. When I came up, my older daughter said her little sister swam out towards the bay. What? Oh no! She didn’t listen! I immediately started swimming and yelling her name but I could not see her. Fear struck me and I picked up the pace and swam as hard as I could! Where was she? Did she go under? What has happened to my little one? I was about to swim to shore and tell the park staff to send an emergency crew. Just then, I saw a raft with two adults on it and a little kid. As I swam closer I saw the little pink suit my daughter was wearing. I swam up to the raft and the man on board said, “This little girl was just swimming by and my wife and I just plucked her out of the water and gave her some food.” What an amazing feeling of relief, she had swum about half a mile, and she was only 6 years old but a strong swimmer. I remembered all those swim lessons she had and being on the swim team and it really paid off. I cried tears of joy that she was OK.

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This last winter, we put our 9-month-old puppy out in our courtyard in the morning. She was running around and playing in the snow. We have a pond in the courtyard that was covered mostly with snow and ice. Normally, after a few minutes our pup starts scratching at the door to come back in. Not this time. My wife got up to check and she didn’t see her. We heard a bark, and then several sharp barks. My wife got up and after scanning the yard a bit, she screamed, “She is in the pond, she fell through the ice!” I jumped up and the thought of me jumping into the freezing water flashed through my mind. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Our pup was dog paddling, bobbing to keep her head above water, but she was seconds away from going under. I layed down in the snow and was able to reach her and pull her in. I took her inside, and she could barely walk as the cold had set into her body. We wrapped her in a towel and held her close and dried her off with the hair dryer. It took about an hour before she stopped shivering. We were so lucky to not lose her, I still have trauma from that day. Just a couple of months earlier, we had taken her to a little swimming hole along the Rio Grande near the old train station. I kept taking her out to the middle of the river, and she would paddle back to my wife on the shore. She did it many times and really got the hang of it. Those trips to the river and practicing her dog paddle may have just saved her life.

Layla ready to swim with her snorkel.

Courtesy photo: Layla ready to swim with her snorkel.

There are many statistics that show how dangerous the water can be. Drowning is one of the top causes of accidental death for children in the U.S. but still it seems that it is not a high public safety priority to teach kids to be water safe. Years ago, when many kids were being injured or killed in auto accidents, engineers created what we now call a child safety seat. Huge ad campaigns highlighted how car seat use could save your child. Car seats are given to you at the hospital after your child is born, and daycares give away car seats and boosters. There is still a huge national mandate to make sure kids are safe in cars. Probably no parent reading this article would think about driving their kids anywhere without making sure they were buckled in. We need the same national mandate about saving kids’ lives in the water. It only takes a second for a kid to fall in a pool, the river, or a lake, or encounter a rogue ocean wave, a rip tide, or an irrigation ditch. Think of teaching your child to be water safe as their own personal car seat.

Please understand that being water safe is a true life skill, and you never know when that skill may be needed. I hope that this article encourages parents to get their children water safe. Let’s begin writing your positive water story.

Jen & Zac under water

Courtesy photo: Jen & Zac underwater

Seven Swim Tips

  1. Do have your kids shower versus taking a bath in the bathtub. Kids that shower and have water in their faces learn to swim at an earlier age.
  2. Don’t use floaties unless you are in the water with the kids. They are the training wheels of swimming, and they instill a false sense of security. Your child could jump in the water without them thinking they will float and they don’t.
  3. Do get your kids in the water at an early age. Warm water is fine for very young kids as old as 6 to 9 months, and colder water lessons at 12 to 18 months. Being water safe by 2 to 4 years old should be the goal. After 4 years old, kids develop a natural fear of water. But, if your child is over 4 years old, start them in lessons now for this summer.
  4. Do your research about private swim lesson companies. Find one that is more focused on the skills with some play. Be consistent for at least a six-month stretch. Small groups of three or fewer kids are the ideal size.
  5. Do observe the lessons. If there are several kids in the lesson, an instructor could become distracted and it only takes a second for a kid to drown.
  6. Do check the credentials of the instructors. They should be certified in first aid and CPR, be background screened, be a USA Swimming coach, or be WSI certified. One-on-one private lessons are best. A weekly 20-minute lesson may be all your child can manage in the beginning, and that’s perfectly fine.
  7. Do pay close attention to your child whenever you are close to the water, even if they can swim.

Miguel Castillo is the head swim coach for St. Michael’s High School and the Star Aquatics Otters, a USA Swimming Club. Coach Miguel was named New Mexico High School Coach of the Year, and was voted USA Swimming Coach of the year in New Mexico. Coach Miguel was also the New Mexico Zones All Star Coach for five years and coached them in Hawaii, California, Utah, and Texas. He shares a passion for water safety and competitive swimming for kids.

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