Naysayer: The Real Gold Medal Winner Of The Olympic Trials Isn’t Even Competing

Olympic Trials Swimming Legacy program is the real gold medal winner of the swimming trials being hosted in Indy.
Photography by Mike Botkin/Indianapolis Monthly

I took knowing how to swim for granted.

I was “taught” how to swim by my grandfather, who chucked me into Grand Lake St. Marys off the bow of his pontoon boat The Groucher when I was just a wee lad. He did throw me in the general direction of my mother, but I still had to paddle to get to her and thus learned to keep my head above water.

Following that introduction, the formal lessons I received at the town’s municipal pool came around age 5, and all I can really remember about them is my mom dropping me off at 8:30 a.m. and then being forced to jump into a freezing swimming pool. The water was so cold. So cold.

But to my family, knowing how to swim was a necessity. We lived on a lake and owned a sailboat—a 21-foot Lightning. My father, a radioman second class who served on the USS Benner in the South Pacific during World War II, liked to sail. A lot. He loved to be on the water. He said it relaxed him, even if there was no wind. So nearly every summer evening after he returned home from work, we went sailing.

And every weekend, we went out on a pontoon boat my grandfathers crafted together using eight old, 55-gallon oil drums. One grandfather was a woodworker and the other a welder by profession, so one welded the drums and supporting metal frame together while the other designed and crafted the deck, roof, and storage cabinet in the middle. Then they put a fence up around the edge to keep us kids from falling into the lake. So my cousins and I had to learn at a very early age how to keep ourselves afloat and how to swim to safety.

Swimming continued to play a big part in my life. I completed the mile swim to earn my merit badge in swimming at Camp Lakota Boy Scout Summer Camp in my early teens, participating every year thereafter just to see if I could still do it. It was at Camp Lakota that I learned how to float in a pool with ease. Later in life, I lived along the Gulf of Mexico, going out past the breakers where I could enjoy the freedom of open water swimming.

Covering the events leading up to the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials in Indianapolis made me think about my younger days in the water. I’ve always known the “how to’s” of swimming, so I never realized there are so many people of all ages who do not know how to swim at all.

I never even thought about it until I heard that swimming is often touted as the only sport that saves lives. Drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for children ages 1–4 years, and children under 1 year old are more likely to drown at home. Of children younger than 5, 87 percent of drowning fatalities occur in home pools or hot tubs. Bathtubs are the second leading location.

That is why Eli Lilly and Company introduced the Swim in Safety program alongside the 2024 swimming trials. The legacy program is teaching water safety to as many Hoosiers 5 and older as possible over 2023 and 2024, with a goal to train at least 25,000 individuals in 2023 and 2024 each.

What does water safe mean? It means learning and practicing progressive self-rescue and swimming skills that help reduce the risk of drowning, helping individuals to become more confident in and around water.

The Swim Safety Legacy program presented by Eli Lilly is a statewide initiative that has already reached over 30,000 Hoosiers in 2023 and ’24 so far. Our goal is 50,000 by the end of 2024. This will be a lasting legacy,” Indiana Sports Corp chief of staff and strategy Sarah Myer states.

Shana Ferguson, chief commercial officer of USA Swimming, adds, “Part of this legacy leave-behind is legislation to mandate every second grader in Indianapolis has access to swim lessons.”

Over 54 percent of Americans either can’t swim or don’t have all the basic swimming skills, according to a recent Red Cross survey. Only 28 percent of Hispanic people and 37 percent of Black people have taken swimming lessons, according to the CDC.

“This event is going to save lives,” says Scott Davison, president and CEO of OneAmerica Financial. “Swim Safety will reach 50,000 under served citizens. This will put a dent in the history of exclusion in this country.”

We all have read the stories of people, young and old, who fall into a river, get knocked off a boat into turbulent waters, or who look away from their little ones for just a split second and are heartbroken. According to the WHO, drowning is the third leading cause of unintentional death worldwide, accounting for 7 percent of all injury-related deaths. There are an estimated 236,000 drowning deaths every year globally, so this is not just a problem in this country or state. This initiative will help address drowning deaths and build on a skill that families can continue passing on to their little ones, like mine did for me.

These trials are already a historic event. The meet, the venue, and every step Indy has taken to deliver a first-class experience for the 1,000 swimmers and approximately 250,000 attending fans are epic. But the Swim in Safety program is the real gold medal winner of this week’s competition.