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No One is Drown Proof

6/4/2014

By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

One summer a few years ago, I was at a beach near the Pacific Ocean and decided to go for a swim. Often relegated to indoor chlorinated pools, I craved the freedom the limitless ocean provides. It was 80 degrees. Sunny. Beautiful. I strapped on goggles, put on fins (after all, this wasn't practice, I wanted fun) and waded into the water. 

I didn't know I was in danger. The sun was high. The sky was a beautiful blue. I heard seagulls somewhere. 

I remember floating deeper and deeper into the water, taking a few freestyle strokes, floating on my back, looking at the sky. There was water in my goggles. I took them off and wiped my finger on the inside of them. Then I turned around.

The shore was gone.

“Uh, that’s weird.”

I spun around, assuming I was directionally confused. But the shore disappeared. Like it had sunk into the water. Where was the shore? What was going on? Where was I? I spun a few times in the water and realized, in the 45 seconds it took to swim a few freestyle strokes, float on my back, clean out my goggles, and look around, I was swept away in a riptide current. 

I panicked. I floated in the waves and realized each second took me farther from the shore. I kicked and squinted and barely saw the outlines of some trees in the distance – the shore, far away. As an experienced swimmer, a collegiate swimmer, a seasoned, in-shape swimmer, I never thought it was possible to be taken hold by the water in such a dangerous and lightning-fast way. I always felt invincible around water. The water was my friend. And yet, it took me an hour of constant, hard swimming zig-zag back and forth to get back to that shore. 

Now that it’s almost summer, and subsequently outdoor swimming season, I share this story in the chance a swimmer is reading this and will take future caution. I was lucky. But drownings don’t occur with ample warning. They can occur in an instant, a split-second. One minute you’re swimming, floating on your back, enjoying the sunshine. The next minute, you’re swept away. 

Here are a few reminders to take caution this summer season. Have fun, but also be aware and make good aquatic decisions: 

1. Don’t swim alone. 
When you swim, swim with someone else. Always. Don’t swim in pools where no one is around, and don’t swim in a lake/ocean without anyone by your side. Use the buddy system. 

2. Don’t swim in unfamiliar places. 
I know it’s tempting to go explore unfamiliar places, but make sure you research watery areas. Talk to people who swam there before. Know the tides, the currents, the rocky areas. There are websites that will tell you water conditions for open water areas. Use them. 

3. Don’t dive into water you don’t know.  
Sometimes I see kids leaping from bridges into the water. What? Why would you do this? You have no idea how deep the water is and IT’S VERY VERY DANGEROUS. Don’t dive into any water that isn’t a diving well or off the starting blocks. Just don’t do it. This is the stupidest thing ever. 

4. Check the weather before you go out into the water. 
I’ve been on a boat more than a few times when the weather turned stormy. We have so much data – apps, websites, etc. – to check weather predictions. Stay away from shores and lakes and rivers when the weather looks suspect. Check beach advisories. Check river conditions. 

5. Don’t drink and swim. 
Again, I’ve been in situations where people are drinking on boats and go swimming. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Not a good idea. Don’t do it. 

6. Know your limits. 
No one is drown proof. I know this from firsthand experience. Don’t assume that just because you swim between two walls in a controlled pool environment that you can handle currents more powerful than what you imagine. Don’t assume that you’re invincible around the water because you swim a fast 100m butterfly. Drowning can happen in two minutes or less. 

Take caution and care this summer, swimmers. 


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