Why are African Americans behind in swimming?

Many a time you will hear: “blacks are not built for swimming” – a myth. Even among the African Americans it’s not uncommon: “swimming is an elite and white sport” – well, another myth.

A research paper by Maria Burzillo chronicles a comprehensive history of African Americans and Swimming, and helps in busting many myths. Another informative read is an article by International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) that outlines some of the major accomplishments by the black swimmers. In my minds, this is the kind of information that our society needs to be made aware of.

We, as a society, have collective responsibility to acknowledge, bring awareness, and act to solve critical problems that our society faces. I have highlighted in some of my earlier articles how prevalent drowning is, particularly, among the children. According to a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Report, on an average 10 people die from drowning everyday in the USA; about one in five who dies from drowning is a child under the age of 14; and for every child that dies of drowning, 5 children require emergency care for nonfatal submersion injuries, and these injuries may include severe brain damage and permanent loss of basic functioning.

Even more alarming are the drowning statistics when laid out by race or ethnicity. A research study commissioned by USA Swimming Foundation found nearly 70% of African American children have low to no swim ability as compared to 40% Caucasians. According to a report from CDC, African American children and adolescents aged 5-18 years are 6 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than their white peers.

Per the Washington Post article, we are seeing some improvement, but still less than 2% NCAA Divisional I collegiate swimmers are African American. African Americans have been able to excel in so many other sports, but why not so in swimming?

Why am I bundling high drowning rates and low participation in competitive swimming in the same article? I strongly believe they have the same underlying cause. Could this be a direct result of high percentage of the African Americans not being encouraged or provided the opportunity to learn to swim at an early age?  Swimming, like walking and running, is a basic life skill. Learning to swim saves lives!

The realities, which I agree with, for about 70% African American children with low to no ability to swim and they being 6 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than their white peers can be contributed to:

  • Fear factor (added with some of the myths), mainly among the parents.
  • Economic disparity – swimming facilities and lessons are expensive as compared to say basketball.
  • Lack of swimming role models.
  • A large population in the inner city has no access to affordable swimming pools.
  • Overall lack of awareness of the usefulness of swimming and encouragement by the parents.

It is about time to steer the policies to help communities and remove the barriers for all. It is about time for the parents to step up and encourage their children to learn to swim. I am also hoping a few African American swimmers who have risen to the top will help encourage the younger generation – someone like Cullen Jones, an Olympic medalist, will have a positive impact on the African American youths in the coming days.

I would highly recommend the readers to listen to an interesting sound bite from Jody Jenson on NRP radio.

– Meghna Sil


Rip Current – may look innocent but can be deadly

Polling beachgoers on what they fear most in the seawater almost always comes back with the standard response of ‘sharks’. Very few would cite rip currents; only a fraction of that would know how to deal or even identify rip currents.

Statistics are staggering. On average 100+ people drown every year in rip currents within the US itself. In comparison, the average death count due to shark attacks is 1 person per year. Rip currents account for over 80% of the rescues performed by surf beach lifeguards.

Formation of rip currents is a natural phenomenon. We cannot stop the generation of rip current, but we can acknowledge its power, know how to recognize it, and learn how to deal with it. I would highly recommend my readers to visit NOAA’s National Weather Services’ educational website for details on rip current, and would also urge my readers to spread the word. Awareness is key!

As the waves move from deep waters to the shore, they are broken by sandbars, strongly at some places and weakly at some places. Breaking waves result in ‘pileup’ of water on the beach that eventually needs to retreat seaward (gravity comes into play!). The water would follow the path of least resistance that can either be shallow spots or break in sandbars. This might result in a concentrated flow of water returning to the deeper waters – giving rise to rip currents.

Source: http://www.ripcurrents.noaa.gov

It might be difficult for untrained eyes to easily spot the rips currents, but there are some indicators one should look out for. The rip current normally has a different color than the surrounding water, it is murkier due to floating seaweeds, foams, and debris; darker; a gap in breaking waves; and choppy and churning surface.

If ever caught by a rip current, stay calm and do not fight it. Remember, rip current is a horizontal current – pulls the swimmer away from the shore and not downward. In order to escape it, swim parallel to the shore until out of the current and then swim towards the shore. If unable to break out of the current, tread water and float along the current until it subsides and then swim away from the current and towards the shore. The drowning happens when one is unable to keep afloat either due to panic, exhaustion, or inability to tread water or float.

The speed of the rip current is typically 1-2 feet per second, but can be as high as 8 feet per second, faster than any Olympic swimmer, and strong enough to sweep the strongest of swimmers!

– Meghna Sil

Movies and TV shows – wrong about drowning

Any drowning scene from a movie or TV show, more than likely, portrays a drowning victim flailing arms and screaming for help. Sometimes, the victim is even able to gather enough strength to surface repeatedly above water and scream for help. Eventually, depending on the scene, the victim either drowns or is rescued, but this perpetuates an entirely wrong depiction of reality. In reality, there is hardly any splashing, waving or screaming, and the victim quietly sinks beneath the surface of the water, like the way the sun quickly slips beneath the horizon during the last minutes of dusk. Drowning is almost always quick, silent and unspectacular.

Unfortunately, these misleading depictions by TVs and movies do influence how drowning is perceived, and impairs our ability to identify a drowning victim and our subsequent response. Many preventable child drowning incidents happen within a close distance from the parents, as there are no cues to pick on like screaming and splashing to draw their attention.

According to CDC report, on an average 10 people die daily due to unintentional drowning in the US alone. 20% of such victims are children under 14 years of age. For every child that dies, five children need ER care for non-fatal submersion injuries. Some of the non-fatal injury victims suffer brain damage and long term disabilities. About 10% of these drownings, particularly of younger children, happened within a safe distance and under the ‘watch’ of the parents. Parents failed to recognize the child was drowning.

During drowning the victim’s natural instincts takeover, and the victim becomes incapacitated to perform any voluntary action like waving arms for help, moving towards safety or screaming for help. Breathing is essential to survival, but not speech. In order to avoid actual or perceived suffocation, the natural instinct forces the victim to extend arms laterally and press down on the water surface to lift the mouth out of the water to breath – a phenomenon referred to as Instinctive Drowning Response. Unless rescued, the struggle lasts for only 20-60 seconds before the victim loses consciousness and submerges under the water.

What some people confuse flailing of arms and scream of help with drowning is Aquatic Distress (or panic).  Unlike drowning, during aquatic distress the person has mental ability to scream for help, and respond to rescue efforts like holding on to rope, ladder, lifebelt, etc. Nevertheless, the victim still needs help. I personally have been a victim of aquatic distress. That’s for another article.

Drowning is silent, but let us break the silence to get the message out on drowning misconceptions.

– Meghna Sil

Treading water – a life-saving art

Why would someone jump in to a pool just to learn how to stay afloat in an upright position? An innocent question, right? That’s exactly the question my little sister asked me when I tried to teach her water treading prior to her swim lessons. I don’t remember if I had asked the same question to my dad when he took me for the first time to the pool.

I have had fear of water since I was a child. I was even fearful of stepping into the swimming pool. In the early stages, I would be gripped by the fear of sliding down under the water with no one to rescue me.

If my memory serves me right, it took me a long time to overcome fear of water and build confidence. My dad would make me stand on the shallow end of the pool and have me wade the water horizontally with the palm pushing the water away. Little did I know he was teaching me what I now know as sculling. As I progressed with sculling, I was encouraged to start kicking the water by gently moving my legs like a pair of scissors (what I now know as fluttering). It was not easy to let go of the floor, but it was a good exercise to overcome my fear. I would kick randomly in all possible ways, including bike paddling and throwing the legs like a frog. After lot of guidance, I got used to a kicking style-known as eggbeater style.

I vividly remember the day I was able to keep my body upright, head above the water, and move my hands and legs in perfect sync, and stay afloat without trying to grab anything. I was beginning to master the art of water treading. Actual swimming was yet to come.

Looking back, I am glad that I was afforded the opportunity to learn the techniques in a proper sequence. Confidence on my ability to tread water also tremendously helped to manage my fear of water. With added extra confidence, I was able to quickly progress through my swim lessons.

Ability to tread water will help keep your head above water – essentially a life-saving skill.

My advice to those who are fearful of water is to start with a simple step – learn to tread water. Start at the shallow end, have someone to supervise (and teach) and keep close to the wall. If need be, use a floatation board or a noodle. Build the confidence to take the plunge, and learn a life-saving skill.  And of course, treading water is a great exercise to burn calories without hurting your joints.

– Meghna Sil

Innovation & Swimming – Helping Resurface

During the summer of 2015, circumstances brought four like-minded high schoolers with similar interests.  The problem in front of us was – why drowning even among professional triathletes was high and what can be done?

Late night brainstorming and long hours in the labs resulted in a successful and working prototype of an inflatable device that can be worn as an armband and can be easily inflated on-demand by pull of a string. The device is capable of taking a swimmer up to 350 lbs. to safety when the disaster strikes.  ReSurface was born!

– Meghna Sil

Innovation & Swimming – a Coach’s Aide

Undoubtedly, there have been very many technological innovations in the arena of athletics and sports, ranging from real-time feedback on the performance to collection of voluminous data for post analysis. But then, there aren’t many to aid the swimming coaches in the pool. In swimming, like many other sports, coaches still largely depend on stopwatch, whistle, notepad and pencils, and if lucky enough, a few assistant coaches.

Which coach wouldn’t dream of shaving some time off from focusing on the stopwatch and instead concentrate on swimming techniques and stroke efficiency? All the coach has to do is have the swimmers wear this innovative device called TritonWear at the back of their head (attached to the goggle strap or tucked under the swim cap) and turn it on; and a tablet either running on iOS or Android to track and view the swimmer’s performance.

TritonWear’s design is very well thought out with various sensors necessary to collect, store and transmit performance metrics. The device includes a Micro USB port for charging, is water resistance up to a depth of 3 m (~10 ft.) and use Bluetooth technology to connect with iOS and Android devices.


(Photo Source: Tritonwear.com)

The device collects and transmits real time data for over 15 different performance metrics that determines the speed and stroke efficiency. Some of the key metrics are – stroke count, stroke rate, time underwater, turn time, etc. When these metrics are fed real time to the tablet, the coach does not have to keep looking at the stopwatch and calling out to the swimmers. There is more time to focus on other important aspects of coaching. The app on the tablet also provides a very efficient interface for the coach to monitor the performance of multiple swimmers at the same time.

The data collected while the swimmer is in the water can also be used for running analytics that can provide much more insight than what the coach or the swimmer can imagine. The data can reveal a wealth of information that can be used for planning future training and visualize various trends with the current training.

TritonWear does not replace but rather empowers the coach by providing actionable intelligence to help target specific performance improvements.

Coaches can now put technology and data to work! I would highly recommend TritonWear to the coaches.

– Meghna Sil

World Water Day – March 22

Fire, Air and Water – 3 essential elements that sustain life on earth.

We, in the most part of the US, take water for granted.  We open the faucet – we get the clean water; we go to the pool – we get to swim in safe water; we go to the grocery store – we get to bring home fish and fresh produce; and so and so forth. How many times do we think about all ‘behind the scene’ individuals who make this happen? According to an UNESCO report, an estimated 3/4 th of the jobs worldwide are either heavily or moderately dependent on water.  Half of the world’s workers, 1.5 billion people, are employed in eight water and natural-resource dependent industries.  These workers range from a utility worker in New York city to a mother bringing carrying water for her family in a remote village in Africa.  For those who are not working in water-related sector, they still would need water for coffee to keep going and water for air-conditioner to stay cool.  You get my point.

Water not only sustains life, but also drives economy and shapes society.

World Water Day is one of UN-Water’s campaigns that aims to inform, engage and inspire action, and it dates back to March 22, 1993 when first World Water Day was celebrated.  UN-Water sets a theme for each year based on current or future challenges. This year’s (2016) theme is Better Water, Better Jobs: World Water Day 2016.

It is very easy to recognize the power of water and water-related sector jobs in transforming people’s life and impacting society and economy.  Yet, millions of those workers are unrecognized and unprotected.  Subtle changes in quantity and quality of water can change these workers’ lives and livelihoods.  Let’s all join hands to recognize all those workers and spread awareness on the importance of clean water and a safe environment.

Happy World Water Day 2016!

world water day 2016

-Meghna Sil

Prevent Shallow Water Blackout – don’t ignore your body signals!

As part of my research on swim safety and drowning prevention, I have spent a considerable amount of time studying Shallow Water Blackout (SWB), a nightmare for elite swimmers. As more and more swimmers are pushing the envelope of physical endurance, I feel that swimmers need to pay more attention to SWB drowning. Death of two NAVY Seals last year in a Virginia Beach training pool was attributed to SWB. Even a recent death of a Dartmouth varsity swimmer in Florida was initially suspected to SWB drowning and later attributed to a rare heart condition per the autopsy report.

Chances of SWB happening is higher for professional and well-trained swimmers -who do rigorous underwater training or underwater breath holding for increasing their endurance limit. Underwater training by itself is not the cause; it happens when the swimmer stretches the ‘boundary’, let the competitive spirit take over without being aware that it may lead to SWB. Statistics show drowning among the well-trained swimmers is mostly due to SWB.

Under normal circumstance, as oxygen is metabolized in our lungs, the O2 level goes down and CO2 level goes up. The brain ‘monitors’ the CO2 and when the level rises to a threshold value, it sends the signal and urges the body to breathe. A professional swimmer (when the competitive pride and sense of invincibility takes over) can suppress the urge to breathe and deprive the brain of Oxygen. Alternatively (done more often), swimmer can trick the brain by lowering the CO2 level by hyperventilation before diving into the water. The starting CO2 level is so low that even if it rises while the swimmer is underwater, it never rises to the threshold before the brain is deprived of O2. Due to O2 deprivation to the brain, the swimmer passes out. Eventually, the CO2 level reaches the threshold and the body gets the urge to breathe and that results in lungs filled with water and eventual drowning.

Despite the concept of Shallow Water Blackout is being understood, there is a general lack of awareness among the swimmers and coaches. Even though I am not a professional swimmer, I have never been told by any coach of the implications of rigorous exercise (that can cause hyperventilation) prior to underwater swimming or breath holding can cause blackout.

Sense of invincibility is important to winning, but stay tuned and respond to your body signals.

I am glad to see that recently some famous swimming personalities, including Michael Phelps and his coach Bob Bowman, have taken upon themselves to bring awareness to other coaches and swimmers. We definitely need more Phelps and Bowmans! Some local governments, and swimming facilities are taking steps in the right direction to implement policies to prevent SWB. A good start, but a long way to go!

– Meghna Sil

Innovation & Swimming – be Coached

Wouldn’t it be nice to have your coach available 24X7, swimming next to you, providing instantaneous feedback and correcting your strokes? How cool would that be!

A group of innovators in France conceived the idea and developed a ‘personal coach’ called Swimbot.  Swimbot is a small device that has all the necessary sensors and microprocessor to help the swimmer improve their swimming by providing constant feedback during swimming via a set of bone conduction earphones.  All the components including lithium battery is compactly packed inside the device which can be tucked in behind the head under the swim cap. Very elegantly designed!

swimbot-swimcapswimbot-console(Photo Source – swimbot.net)

Even before the swimmer gets into the water, she can put the ‘personal coach’ to work. Swimbot, which can be connected to smart phones using Bluetooth, comes with a set of tutorials on various techniques. A wide range of these tutorials is also available on YouTube – these tutorials are highly recommended. Very impressive content!

Before diving into the water, the swimmer can choose a training program on the touchscreen console of the device. These training programs focus on streamlining, propelling and breathing techniques. Once she starts swimming, a wide range of sensors housed in the device kick into action. These sensors continuously measure all the relevant parameters, determine any deviation from ideal, and instantaneously convey the feedback via a set of earphones; the swimmer can instantly adjust her strokes and make necessary corrections. Let us get real, she would not get this kind of instantaneous feedback from a real coach. Would she?

As she continues to swim, all the measures, including the performance measures, are stored in Swimbot that can be synched up with a smart phone for later analysis. The stored data is very valuable for the swimmer and her actual coach to synch up and jointly perform the analysis.

If popularized and delivers on its promises, Swimbot could be a game-changer.

Want to listen to music while swimming? Swimbot comes with an MP3 player too. Or, want to swim at a certain tempo? Swimbot can help with that too.

I can’t wait to hear what other swim enthusiasts think of this cutting edge device.

– Meghna Sil

Innovation & Swimming – be Navigated

IOLITE, a GPS based tracking device, gets it name from legendary Sunstones used by the Vikings for navigation. Rightfully so!

This is not the first time (or the last) you are hearing this – one of the challenges of open water swimming is to stay on course. A triathlete swimmer would appreciate anything that would take away the stress of staying on course and rather focus their energy on swimming.

IOLITE does just more than taking care of sighting and assists the swimmer with navigating along a straight line. It also comes with added features to help maintain a planned pace and assists in keeping stroke cadence. IOLITE also collects all the data from start to finish for later analysis.

IOLITE primarily comes as two components, GPS tracking unit and LED Display unit, housed in leak-proof casings and connected by a flexible and water-resistant cable. The LED Display is attached to lens of swimming goggle and the tracking device either can be attached to the goggle strap at the back or tucked under the skullcap. The tracking device provides real time feed to the LED Display so the swimmer can respond accordingly.

IOLITE primarily comes as two components, GPS tracking unit and LED Display unit, housed in leak-proof casing and connected by a flexible and water-resistant cable. The LED Display is attached to lens of swimming goggle and the tracking device either can be attached to the goggle strap at the back or tucked under the skullcap. The tracking device provides real time feed to the LED Display so the swimmer can respond accordingly.

iolite-GPS Unit

iolite-swimmer(Photo Source – swimiolite.com)

How does it work? The navigation path can be pre-plotted using the software (that comes with the product) OR allow the GPS to determine ‘line of swimming’ within few feet of swimming. It is also relatively easy to reset the direction mid-course. Any deviation from the path is indicated by a set of LED lights on the display.

Even though IOLITE is a great innovation, to me, it looked like a range of devices packaged into one. Sometimes additional features can be a distraction and if that is the case, the users will turn off those features. The product should not lose its primary purpose – keep the swimmer on course. Do we really need a device to help triathlete swimmers to maintain rhythm of their strokes?

As I had indicated in another article, discussions will continue around fairness of using such devices in competitive swimming. In parallel, innovation should continue to bring better products to keep the swimmers safe and contribute towards better performance.

-Meghna Sil