It was a Boxing Day BBQ a few years back. The sun was shining, all my husband’s family were together enjoying my brothers-in-law freshly built in-ground pool. There were several other families there too and the older kids were all splashing and playing on the big pool flamingos they got for Christmas. The adults were eating, drinking and laughing. Everyone was so happy on a day that could easily have been our 2-year old’s last day on Earth.
Drowning doesn’t discriminate, and my years as a swim school owner and water safety advocate certainly don’t protect me or my family from drowning. But I do have the SAFER messages imprinted on my brain, and that Boxing day, my eyes were on him like a hawk.
People were coming and going into the pool area. The dual gates (one at each end of the pool area to allow access up to the back of the block) were not propped open, but they were opening and closing often as kids and adults enjoyed the party.
My blonde-haired boy, was busily exploring the yard, asking intermittently to go swimming, “not yet, look at all of these toys to play with” I'd distract him, and he’d trot off to yell at the kids through the fence. Then it happened. I turned to pick up my drink as a group of people went through the pool gate at once and it was held open that fraction longer.
FACT: Children are drawn to water like a moth to a flame.
When I turned back, Mackallay was no longer in the yard, scanning everywhere I spotted his little curls bouncing towards the pool steps. Someone had innocently let him in. The kids were playing in the deep again, the adults had gone on through the next gate and there was Mack, unsupervised and heading for the water. As I quickly walked over, he didn't hesitate, he went straight to the pool steps, one step down two steps down calling for his sister. I was standing at the pool edge as he paused on the bottom step gigging and wobbling trying to keep his balance just beside the deep sparkling water.
Without any drama or anyone even knowing what happened, I kicked off my shoes, and scooped him up. I knew instantly how easily a tragedy could have occurred that day. If I thought my husband was watching him, if I trusted the barrier to keep him safe, if I thought ‘that won’t happen to me’ and chatted with the other mums. I hate to even think about what might have happened.
FACT: Drowning is often unnoticed because it is so swift and silent, no splashing or calling out, just a toddler quietly sinking to the bottom of the pool.
The words I’d once heard Laurie Lawrence say, often come to mind “an unsupervised child near a backyard pool is like an unsupervised child playing with a loaded gun.” If nothing else resonates for you, in this story, then that is the message I have for you today.
This summer, as you and your children enjoy Australia’s multitude of water wonderlands, never relax and think “that won’t happen to me”. Last year in Australia, the Royal Life Saving Drowning Report tells us that 27 families went through the absolute heartbreak of losing their child to drowning. Their research also tells us that for every child who dies from drowning, 3 more are hospitalised, often left with life-long brain injuries. Drowning is a real and imminent threat to your children, so this summer, please ramp up your vigilance.
Here are my Top 4 Tips for your summer parties that are on or around water this year:
If you have any stories of your children related to drowning or close-calls like this one I would love to hear about them, please email email@example.com
Siria Thomas is Managing Director of Northern Stars Swim School, Convenor of Australian Swim School's Association's SAFER Swimming Program and busy wife and mother of 3.
The pool gate was left wedged open hours after the BBQ was over. She tiptoed over the wet towels that had fallen in front of the gate. The water was sparkling and she could see her mermaid Barbie underwater on the bottom step. "There you are!" she giggled. It was nearly time for her bath and she wanted mermaid Barbie. First step, the water is a bit colder now but she's almost there...second step, she can reach from here...third step is slippery...SPLASH....panic, can't reach the edge, cold water, fear, where's mummy, can't breathe... Scenes like this happen every year in Australia, some with devastating endings, like the ones we often hear in the media. Sometimes though, the survival skills they have learned in their swimming lessons kick in. At Northern Stars, I have heard several of these good ending stories from our clients and I know from speaking to others at our national conference recently that swim schools across the country are also hearing success stories from their little swimmers. Children who have participated in lessons and learned how to hold their breath, how to float on their back, how to kick back to the wall and climb out have a better chance of surviving an accidental fall in than those who have not learned these skills. Swimming lessons should therefore never be considered as just another of the activities kids can choose from. Ballet won't get them back to the wall, karate won't help them tread water and call for help, and music lessons won't help keep them afloat in a rip current. The bottom line is that swimming lessons are a big layer in the protection against drowning. Swimming skills save lives and must not be made negotiable for Aussie kids. Continuing swimming lessons all year round will ensure your children acquire and maintain skills that could save their life...Swimming Matters.