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Using a World Record Attempt to Get More In-Pool Participation

5 Jun, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

With the Olympics on the horizon (next year) and the swimming season gearing up (we hope), the siren song of pools may be drawing a lot of people to various aquatics facilities in the next few months. Some of them (kids especially) might never have seen a swim meet before – but will be packing their aspirations.

All of those combine to make the World’s Largest Swimming Lesson, a free participatory event, a great opportunity. In addition to the overriding theme of teaching water safety, it can create an excellent tie-in and bring some additional media attention.

As promotional opportunities go, this might be even better than the Olympics (gold medals and all) for organizers of swimming and diving events. The World’s Largest Swimming Lesson (WLSL), an annual global initiative for water safety, comes around on July 16 (the new, post COVID-19 date), and is attempting to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records once again. (It’s already there; it just wants to break its own record.)

Whether or not enough pools will be open to allow it to do so is an open question. After all, many states still have restrictions in place, governing large gatherings, and not all parks are open yet (and those are where many pools are located, and because they are generally free to local residents, they have the best potential to draw crowds that include non-swimmers).

There are some things in the event’s favor, in places where it can be held. Of course, everyone loves the idea of being part of a Guinness Book attempt (it has been a boost for many competitions), the event has undeniable crowd appeal, and can help attract new attention to swimming and diving programs. It’s also a great opportunity for some media coverage for a sports event, provided event owners start publicizing it now.

Swim meets, diving competitions and more can set aside time at any point during the day; all they need to do is register the event with WLSL here and download the host location guide. (The website also offers a toolkit and other resources.)

There’s definitely a large pool (heh) of possible participants; the WLSL site notes that in 2014, a survey completed by the American Red Cross found that more than half of all Americans (54 percent) either can't swim or don't have all of the basic swimming skills. Even scarier: According to a SafeKids Worldwide 2016 report, despite the fact that lack of supervision plays a role in the majority of drowning deaths, less than half of parents (49 percent) indicate they remain within arms' reach of their child in the water.

On the whole, adults are more resistant to learning to swim; in addition to having built up a fear of water over several decades, many are simply embarrassed about not knowing how and won’t seek out lessons. (They’re also the leading providers of excuses, including I don’t go near water so I don’t need to swim…I can’t do it because of my contacts/sinuses/ears/hair/skin… Someone pushed me in once and I had nightmares for years… and others of a similar nature.)

Children, by contrast, might be afraid of being pushed in, but have not had the time to build up the same fears; they’re also less self-conscious, particularly if they see other children taking lessons. And after seeing it in the Olympics (it’s the second-most-watched sport, after track & field and before soccer), it’s a sure bet a big segment of the population will be interested.

The WLSL concentrates on promoting the kind of skills that allow individuals to be comfortable in the water: survival floating and simple strokes. Organizers note that it is essential to reassure individuals that they will not have to jump into the water, dive headfirst or even put their faces in, if they don’t wish to. Strokes like the basic backstroke and dogpaddle, for example, are easily learned and don’t require any special breathing techniques.

Minorities (of all ages) are also a demographic less likely to learn to swim. The BBC noted,

A recent study sponsored by USA Swimming uncovered stark statistics. Just under 70 percent of African American children surveyed said they had no or low ability to swim. Low ability merely meant they were able to splash around in the shallow end. A further 12 percent said they could swim but had "taught themselves." The study found 58 percent of Hispanic children had no or low swimming ability. For white children, the figure was only 42 percent.

"It is an epidemic that is almost going unnoticed," says Sue Anderson, director of programs and services at USA Swimming.

A community swim lesson, therefore, is a great attempt to bring diversity to the swimming and diving community. In addition, encouraging participants to stick around after the lesson and cheer for the competitors just might inspire people to become more involved in the future.

It's also a media opportunity that can help promote your event, particularly if you provide plenty of advance notice, and take time to make sure the community is aware of the event as well. (And since it takes place when most schools have let out for summer, it's an even better time to get kids' - and parents' attention.)

And, yes, when all else fails, there’s that Guinness Book factor: TEAM WLSL™ (as everyone is collectively known after participating) holds the current Guinness World Record™ for the largest simultaneous swimming lesson conducted at multiple venues. The official record was set in 2014 with 36,564 participants in 22 countries. In 2013, Sun-N-Fun in Naples, Florida, set a Guinness World Record™ for the largest swimming lesson conducted at a single venue with 1,308 participants.

The event, which is supported by over 50 national water safety groups, also has a huge social media presence, with communities, aquatics facilities and more challenging one another for the most participants.

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