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Larissa Rodriguez of Eden Prairie learned how to swim less than two years ago. At age 40, she figured it was about time.
With drownings in Minnesota at a 10-year high, Rodriguez is speaking out about what keeps adults from learning how to swim, even those who make sure their children get lessons.
"Everybody talks about the stats for kids, but nobody talks about the fact that the majority of adults in this country don't know how" to swim, she said.
Statistics show that majority of non-swimmers ranging from a little more than 50 percent to 60 percent. In Olympic years, enrollment of children in swimming classes often ticks up by as much as 10 percent, but there's no noticeable rise among adults.
A year ago this month, Rodriguez launched swimmunity.com, a website intended to offer support, encouragement and resources to other adults who are considering taking the plunge for the first time. It has drawn swimmer wannabes from across the country, and she hopes that spreading the word will attract more.
Rodriguez was inspired to launch the site after reading a news story that almost ended in tragedy. Muhammad Javed was fishing with his children off a dock on Fish Lake in Eagan, near their home, when his 2-year-old son jumped in the water after a turtle. He jumped in after the child, only to struggle and sink, getting caught in weeds. A passerby who could swim was able to pull both of them out of the water.
Just a few days after recovering from his ordeal, Javed enrolled in swim classes at the YMCA. He stopped after a few lessons because he got busy at work, but he plans to become as proficient as his kids.
"Even my 2 1/2-year-old daughter can take off her floating device and swim," he said.
Javed's near-disaster stuck with Rodriguez.
"People are told to make sure their kids can swim, but no one tells them they should, too," she said. "As a parent, you are your child's lifeguard. You are responsible for their safety in the water."
Rodriguez grew up in Richfield, with parents and a brother, none of whom knew how to swim.
"If your parents can't swim, you only have a 13 percent chance of learning yourself," she said.
When she was 7, she took a few lessons, "but for whatever reason I didn't like it and begged my parents if I could quit," she said. "I got it in my mind that I would never learn, and spent my life sitting out of water activities. I never sought out vacations where there would be water, and didn't go to pools or just sat by them."
Then, a couple of years ago, she decided to reward herself for completing a master's degree with a trip to Bora Bora.
"I thought, if I can get an MBA, I can learn to swim," she said. Despite that determination, she found after enrolling at Foss Swim School that she really had to push herself.
Jon Foss, leader of the 20-year-old school, said that only a tiny percentage of students are adults. Most bring a lot more baggage to the pool than children.
"A lot of adults have an almost paralyzing fear of water and can't pinpoint why," he said. "Others have specific fears, like not being able to see to the bottom of a lake, or thinking they'll die if they just put their face in the water. But most have had a bad experience, like going underwater and being unable to breathe. The old philosophy of throwing kids in the lake with a floatie on and making them swim back was pretty common around here."
Rodriguez credits a great instructor with finding the right balance of coaxing her outside of her comfort zone and being supportive with helping her ultimately overcome those hurdles. She now swims about four days a week, usually in a pool at Lifetime Fitness.
Most of Rodriguez's fellow adult students in her beginners' class ended up quitting before the class was over, she said. For some people, shame is a factor -- it's especially hard to admit you don't know how to swim when you live in the Land of 10,000 Lakes -- but the actual physical effort required often comes as a surprise.
"A lot of people get thrown by how hard it feels," she said. "If you've spent your whole life avoiding water, you have to first master how to breathe and build up your endurance. The resistance of water is 10 times that of air, so the first time you swim a pool length makes even people who are fit feel like they're going to have a heart attack. You have to recondition your body."
Putting her MBA to good use, Rodriguez is advising swim schools on how to expand their most neglected market -- grown-ups. One thing she wishes adult-swimming teachers would do is schedule adult lessons when no children's classes are also going on.
"The last thing you want is a bunch of kids asking what you're doing there," she said. "The swim schools need to segment their markets, and create an experience tailored to adults."
She also doesn't believe the assumption that all adults who don't swim are afraid of the water. Some simply haven't thought about it.
Another frustration: no common definition of minimum proficiency.
"Some say if you can swim a continuous 300 yards, you're OK, but I see adults all the time who can barely make it from one side of the pool to the other,'' she said.
The most important message she'd like to get out there is that "so many people think they're the only one who doesn't know how. You're not, and it's never too late."
Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046