By Mike Watkins//Correspondent
Long-time USA Swimming corporate partner Phillips 66 has been a sponsor since 1973 and involved in the sport overall for seven decades. Today, Phillips 66 believes they can improve lives through energy, and in that spirit, usaswimming.org is highlighting swimmers of all levels who have benefited from Phillips 66's contribution and chosen to give back to the sport of swimming or to their community.
Beneath the summer sun in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Chris and Matt Hales noticed something that most 12-year-olds wouldn’t think twice about.
The two brothers were competing at the 2011 North American Challenge Cup along with other swimmers from the United States, Canada and Mexico. As they swam their laps and challenged each other in the water, they noticed a group of young school children watching them nearby – mesmerized by the action in the pool – but as the boys discovered at closer inspection, none of these children knew how to swim themselves.
As is part of the annual tradition of the North American Challenge Cup, at the end of the meet, the competitors were set to exchange swim caps among countries, but this time, they did something different. The swimmers from Southern California – Chris and Matt included – gave their swim caps to the children who had become their biggest fans.
“It was amazing to see how happy the kids got when we gave them such a small gift – a gift they couldn’t use because they didn’t know how to swim,” Chris said. “They watched the athletes swim every day, and you could tell they wanted to swim, too.
“It made us realize how poor they were. Then, when we saw the statistics in the USA Swimming Foundation study about how many children drown every day here in America because they don’t know how to swim, we realized how lucky we are and that we needed to do something to help.”
Back home in the states, Chris and Matt began to research statistics about swimming and disadvantaged children in America. They learned how often accidental drowning occurs and that two children die every day and thousands more suffer non-fatal injuries from near-drowning experiences. They also learned that children from non-swimming households are eight times more likely to drown and that most childhood drowning victims come from disadvantaged families.
Spurred by this information, the boys, who learned to swim when they were four, went to a big inventory tent sale at TYR and saw suits and goggles being sold for next to nothing.
“We thought about those kids in Mexico and the poor children in America who may never learn to swim,” Matt said. “We figured that more children would be given the chance to learn to swim if they didn’t have to pay for suits, caps and goggles.
“One of our teammate’s mothers is the aquatics director for the local YMCA and his dad is an inner-city high school swim coach, and they both told us that there is a real need everywhere for donated caps, suits and goggles. Our mom and dad put together a list of swimming stores, and we started writing letters asking for left-over inventory.”
The first donations came in the form of swimsuits from the B&R Swim Shop thousands of miles away in Pittsburgh, Pa., and goggles from Swimoutlet.com. The boys took them to YMCAs in Santa Ana and Mission Viejo, Calif., where they talked to young kids about how much fun swimming is and how great it is to be on a swim team.
“We told them that knowing how to swim could one day save their life,” Chris added. “Then, we gave each of the kids caps and goggles. It was just as exciting as seeing the faces of those children in Mexico. Our dad helped us build a website (www.gogglesforguppies.org), and we kept sending out letters asking for donations.”
They also placed a collections container at their Mission Viejo Nadadores club pool, and created a video – “Goggles for Guppies: Share the Passion” – on YouTube and a page on LinkedIn.
This past August, the organization became an affiliate of USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash coalition as the official distributor of swim equipment for Make a Splash.
“From the very moment they drew a correlation between the high drowning rates of disadvantaged children and the potential availability of donated swim equipment, Chris and Matt have been driven to make a difference,” said their dad, Mike, who serves as executive director of Goggles for Guppies, which also has a board of directors.
“What strikes me the most about Chris and Matt is their compassion and their love for the sport. As I watched them closely at the YMCAs they visited and at the Special Olympics, it was clear to me that they don’t see race, economic status or physical disabilities. What they see is an opportunity to make a difference in a child’s life and that if they can help encourage that child to learn to swim, there will be one less drowning death.”
Now 14, the boys continue to push forward for more donations of swimming equipment and, based on requests from programs across the country, give it to deserving swimmers.
And while they didn’t start Goggles for Guppies with the purpose of receiving accolades and praise, they said hearing from those they impact makes it all worth the hard work and time it takes to make the organization work and be successful.
“The biggest rewards are the thank you letters we receive along with the pictures of kids with their new caps, goggles and swimsuits,” Matt said. “It was wonderful to get a Facebook post from a swim club in Louisiana whose members had lost their swim equipment in Hurricane Isaac, and we received a great email and picture from the father of a four-year-old who has cancer who couldn’t stop running around the house with his new goggles. We also heard back from the best friend of a 17-year-old drowning victim who established a learn-to-swim program in his memory.”
Chris and Matt have set some lofty goals for Goggles for Guppies, including becoming the official recipient and distributor of donated swim equipment from all major sporting goods stores like Sports Authority, Big Five and Dick’s Sporting Goods and from manufacturers such as TYR, Speedo and Arena.
They also want to find new ways to promote “Young Athletes Putting an End to Childhood Drowning in America” by getting more kids involved in their local communities to solicit unsold equipment inventory and deliver it to local learn-to-swim programs.
“Kids listen to kids, so if we can be positive role models and encourage other kids with our excitement about swimming, we think they’ll pay attention to the important message that learning to swim prevents drowning,” Chris said. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth it knowing that more and more kids will be water safe.”