From my years as a competitive swimmer I knew a tired swimmer was not a good swimmer

By Olivia Wolf

In my nineteen years of life, I had never been scared of drowning. But, I never realized how easily it could happen until this past spring.

I have always loved the water. Growing up, I swam competitively for 10 years and relished anytime I got to jump into a pool, lake or ocean. After the restrictions started to lift towards the beginning of last fall, I decided to rekindle my love of the water and join my university’s surf club at St. Andrews, Scotland. I had never surfed before, but with my long swim history, I figured I would feel close to home in any water sport.

“I have always loved the water.” Olivia, pictured poolside, always was a strong swimmer and was comfortable keeping herself afloat. Submitted photo.

I wasn’t the only one with that idea. Over one hundred other students at my university also had the same idea. So, when I finally snagged an opening on a surfing excursion this past February, I jumped on the opportunity.

The day of the excursion was cold but clear. I biked down to the surf shed and met with everyone else who had also managed to land a surf slot. We changed into thick wetsuits and booties to protect us from the North Sea temperatures, grabbed our boards, and headed towards the sea. Because the sky was clear, I thought that the water would only have two to three-foot swells, but as we walked toward the beach, I could hear the roar of crashing waves. When we finally crested the dunes, we were met with five-foot swells all along the beach. The leader of our surf group saw the nerves on our faces and explained to us that all we had to do was paddle through the rough surf and reach the calm spot beyond the breaking waves. He pointed out to another group of surfers sitting on their boards. We watched as one of them paddled out from this calmer area to the breaking point and caught a wave into shore. At this point, any nerves I had at the prospect of such big swells had turned into excitement at the possibility of catching my first big wave.

At the beginning of the year, we attended surf lessons with the club and were taught how to safely duck under big waves with our boards. This came in handy as we set out into the water. It felt like every 15 seconds, I had to duck under another massive wave. Finally, I made it to the calm water beyond the breaking waves. My arms ached, but I was still excited to try and catch a big wave. I rested for a bit in the calm water, trying to regain my strength. After a while, I spotted a promising wave. I lined myself up and started paddling to try and catch it. Just as I finally felt comfortable enough to try and stand up, my weight shifted, and I tumbled off the board.

“Growing up, I swam competitively for 10 years and relished anytime I got to jump into a pool, lake, or ocean.” Olivia, pictured on the right. Submitted photo.

As soon as I entered the water, I was tossed around like clothes in a washing machine. I didn’t know which I was up or down. When I finally felt the pressure of the wave release, I came up sputtering for air, only to have to duck down again to avoid the next wave crashing right on top of me. I managed to swim to my board and start the long journey of paddling back out beyond the breaking point. It took me twice as long as the first time to reach the calm section of the water and my arms were even more drained. Still I was excited and waited patiently on my board for a second chance at a big wave. I repeated the process, lining up and paddling to try and catch a good wave, and this time I managed to get to my knees before falling off the board. I was immediately shoved under and somersaulted through the water before breaking the surface again. I was able to spot my board but didn’t have time to swim for it before another wave crashed right on top of me. After two more waves passed, I was finally able to grab my board but after being tossed around in the sea I hardly had the energy to do more that hold on to the side of the board and float. At this point, I had a crucial decision to make, try to paddle back out against the harsh waves as my strength faded or point my board towards the shore and try and catch a less powerful wave to the sand.

The skyline of St. Andrews viewed across the East Sands. Photo credit: Val Vannet / St. Andrews from Kinkell Braes / CC BY-SA 2.0

I made the decision to paddle back to shore. From my years as a competitive swimmer I knew a tired swimmer was not a good swimmer and I didn’t want to take my chances. I didn’t even realize how tired I was until I had to pick my board up and carry it back to the surf shed. I could barely lift the board and couldn’t even manage to pull off my tight wet suit booties when I tried to change back into dry clothes. It wasn’t until I called my mom to report on my experience that I realized I had come close to drowning. It was only after my mother had said, “Thank goodness you didn’t drown! A couple more waves, and you might not have come back up!” that the seriousness of the situation struck me. She was right. A couple more waves and tumbles, and I don’t know if I would have had the strength to keep my head above the surface. I had always imagined drowning as someone waving around for help, not quietly slipping beneath a wave.

The only reason that my experience ended well that day, and I never once thought drowning was a possibility, was because I had the skills to bring me to safety. I was a strong swimmer and was comfortable keeping myself afloat. I wore a wetsuit to protect myself from cold water shock. I hadn’t gone in the water by myself. I was at least one of ten people out on the water that day. I had told my roommate where I was going and when to expect me back. But that one decision, to stay in the water and paddle back or head for shore, was the major decision that decided my safety on that day. If I had chosen to paddle back out and try and catch another wave, I can not confidently say that I would be here writing this article today, despite all the other safe choices I had made.

I know many of you will not be braving the North Sea cold to try to catch big surf. However, I hope my experience illustrates how strong swimming abilities and strong water safety knowledge can provide happy endings to potentially dangerous water situations. Without these two skills, any experience with water can be just as close a call as mine. So, I encourage everyone to start their journey towards becoming strong swimmers or brush up on their water safety as summer rounds the corner so that everyone can enjoy the lake, pool, or ocean this summer.

The Red Cross offers a free Swim app that helps families and kids have fun while learning about water safety.

A great place to start is on the Red Cross website! We offer lots of great resources, from swim lessons for children and adults to a free Swim app that helps families and kids have fun learning about water safety. On our website, you can find Red Cross partner swim lessons that are being offered near you and find lessons for parents about children’s water safety. In addition, the Swim app has videos and activities to make learning about water safety more engaging for young children. You can even track your kids’ progress, allowing them to earn badges as they learn to swim.

Resources like these make water safety more accessible than ever, so please don’t hesitate to take a look! One more person who learns how to be a safe swimmer is one more person whose story ends like mine, safely on shore.

Olivia Wolf is an American Red Cross volunteer for the Minnesota and Dakotas Region. She’s attending university in St. Andrews, Scotland.

Sarah’s Top Five Swimming Safety Tips

Photo by Connie Harvey/American Red Cross
Photo by Connie Harvey/American Red Cross

Sarah Carlton has always had a passion for health, fitness and swimming. She graduated from college with a degree in exercise science and health promotion, and now she’s in charge of the aquatics program for Community Education in Stillwater, Minnesota. Sarah has been the Aquatics Coordinator there for four years and she continues to be a supporter of the Red Cross swimming programs they use for instruction.

“A Red Cross program consists of our community education instructors teaching and guiding swim students using an approved curriculum,” says Sarah. By using the Red Cross program, she knows that her students and their families will get the best swimming education possible. “Through the Red Cross program, there are 6 levels of swimming lessons. It also offers preschool and parent with child classes. Students can start as young as six months and most end lessons around the age of eleven or twelve.”

Luckily, while working with students, Sarah hasn’t run into any scary incidents. Sarah says, “The benefit of doing swim lessons is teaching the kids how to swim and prevent drowning. It also teaches them safety skills, not just in the pool, but while at the beach or boating.”

Junior lifeguarding training, Florida, 2015. Photo credit: Connie Harvey/American Red Cross
Photo by Connie Harvey/American Red Cross

When Sarah became the Aquatics Coordinator for Stillwater Community Education, she obtained her Red Cross Lifeguard and Water Safety Instructor certifications. Having these certifications helped her understand the job responsibilities better, gave her a great networking forum and improved rapport and credibility among her staff team. When needed, she can take a lifeguard shift or fill in as a swim instructor, which enables the program to run within ratio and with minimal disruption to customer service.

Her best advice for people who don’t know how to swim: learn to swim using a Red Cross program. “It’s used around the country and teaches the right skills to be safe in or near water. If you’re an adult, take private lessons. It’s never too late to learn.” The biggest reward at the end of the day for Sarah is seeing the student faces light up when they pass a level or when they know they’ve become better swimmers.

hoto by Connie Harvey/American Red Cross
Photo by Connie Harvey/American Red Cross

Sarah’s Top Five Swimming Pool Safety Tips:
1. Always swim with a buddy
2. Learn to float and use survival strokes
3. No horseplay on the deck or in the pool
4. No crazy stunts off the diving board
5. Learn how to stay afloat in the deep end of the water

If you plan on being in or near water this summer, find a community education program near you for swimming lessons. For more water safety tips, click here. To download the Red Cross mobile Swim App click here.

Story by Kaylee Beevers/American Red Cross Intern

11 safety tips to practice at water parks

WaterSafetyLifeguards2_cropOne of the most popular ways to beat the summer heat is to visit the local water park and fly down the water slide or tube along the lazy river. To help make sure your trip to the park is fun, the American Red Cross has some safety steps you should follow.

1. Learn to swim. It’s the best way to stay safe in, on and around the water. If you cannot perform the five steps of water competency in order, find a Red Cross swim class.

2. Make sure lifeguards are on duty before you go in the water and follow all their instructions.

3. Wear protective clothing, including a hat and some kind of cover-up for when you’ve had enough sun.

4. Use sunscreen before leaving home and reapply during the day.

5. Be prepared if soap and water aren’t available with a product like the new Red Cross alcohol-free hand sanitizer

6. Drink plenty of fluids – avoid drinks with sweeteners or caffeine.

7. Parents – keep an eye on the kids. If they can’t swim or are less than four feet tall, have them wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket.

8. Read the attraction signs and listen to all instructions given to you by the lifeguards. Obey the rules. Follow age and height requirements.

9. Signal a lifeguard if you see someone is in trouble. Yell if you need to grab attention, but don’t go in after the person yourself.

10. Set up a meeting place in case someone gets separated from your group. Use the buddy system to make sure no child is alone.

11. Watch the weather and get out of the water at the first sign of lightning or the rumble of thunder. Stay indoors and away from water for 30 minutes after the last lightning flashes or thunder roars.

DOWNLOAD FREE APPS TO PROTECT YOU. Our Emergency App allows you to choose weather alerts, such as thunderstorms, for areas where you are near the water. It will also give you real-time information on how to keep safe for that particular alert. Our Swim App allows you to access water safety and drowning prevention information and track your child’s progress in Red Cross swim lessons. Children will enjoy learning water safety tips with child-friendly videos and quizzes. Download both apps from your app store by searching for American Red Cross or by going to

Celebrating 100 Years of Red Cross Aquatics

Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow, founder of the Red Cross Water Safety Program and members of the YWCA Life Saving Corps. (Source: Red Cross photo archive.)
Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow, founder of the Red Cross Water Safety Program and members of the YWCA Life Saving Corps.

For the past 100 years, the American Red Cross has helped millions of kids, teens and adults learn how to swim and become lifeguards and instructors. In our Northern Minnesota Region last year, more than 47,500 people took Red Cross Learn-to-Swim, lifeguarding or water safety instructor classes.

This month, during the Red Cross Aquatics Centennial, celebrating 100 years of Red Cross water safety education, we’d like to encourage everyone:

  • to make sure that they and their families can swim
  • to know basic water safety
  • to know how to respond to an emergency

We feel a particular urgency for promoting the steps above because a new national survey conducted for the Red Cross found that 80 percent of Americans said they can swim, only 56 percent of those self-described as swimmers can perform all five basic, or “water competency,” skills for swimming ability:

  • step or jump into the water over your head
  • return to the surface and float or treat water for one minute
  • turn around in a full circle and find an exit
  • swim 25 yards to the exit
  • exit from the water; if from a pool, exit without using a ladder

New survey shows only 56 percent of self-described swimmers know water competency skills.
New survey shows only 56 percent of self-described swimmers know water competency skills.

Overall, the survey found that 54 percent of all Americans can’t swim or don’t have basic swimming ability. Moreover, only 33 percent of African-Americans reported having swimming, or some basic water skills. While 51 percent of white Americans reported the same.

The numbers do not lie. There is a great need for people to take steps for learning how to swim. And so, during our aquatics centennial, the Red Cross kicks off a campaign that seeks to cut the drowning rates in half in 50 cities in 19 states. This campaign will take place in 10 cities this year and expand to all 50 cities in the years ahead.

Here’s some good news: Minnesota is not among the 19 states. Why? It has a low drowning rate compared to other states. And yet, 40 people drowned in non-boating water emergencies in 2012 (most recent reported year from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources). You can help bring down that number.

Adults and children should know how to be safe in the water. In the land of more than 11,800 lakes as well as more than 6,500 rivers and streams…and who knows how many swimming pools…parents and swimmers should learn about water safety and know how to respond to an emergency. To find an aquatics center offering Red Cross swim classes near you, click here. To find other health and safety, such as CPR and First Aid, click here.

Have a great summer!

*The national public opinion survey was conducted for the Red Cross April 17-20, 2014 using ORC International’s Online CARAVAN omnibus survey.

Water, water, everywhere

It almost goes without saying that living in Minnesota means that we’re never far from a body of water. But we’ll say it anyway: there’s water, water, everywhere in our land of lakes, rivers, streams, water parks and swimming pools.

lifeguard_2010_IMG_2351_webLast year, sadly, we had in Minnesota at least 39 drowning-related deaths (not including boating accidents). Do you know that drowning ranks as the second leading cause of unintentional injury or death in children 1-14 years of age?

Because of those tragedies, and the fact that May is National Water Safety Month, we’d like to remind our Minnesota community that everyone should know how to swim and how to respond to water emergencies.

So, do you know how to swim? And does everyone you know and care about know how to swim? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then it’s time for you or that someone you know to enroll in age-appropriate swim courses. There’s no reason to feel ashamed if you can’t swim, but taking action as soon as possible and learning how to swim can go a long way toward preventing accidents in and around water.

????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????How about knowing CPR and first aid? It may become crucial that you carry out actions required to resuscitate an unconscious swimmer, especially in a scenario where there’s no lifeguard on duty. If you don’t know CPR, then learn now.

Also, following these rules can help prevent water emergencies and make your vacation at the beach or by the pool that much more enjoyable:

  • Never leave a child unsupervised around the water. Even where lifeguards are on duty, keep a watchful eye on younger swimmers.
  • Set/follow water safety rules for family based on swimming abilities.
  • Be conscious of any and all posted signs.
  • When possible, swim in areas lifeguard-supervised areas.
  • Have young children or inexperienced swimmers wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets around water, but do not rely on life jackets alone.
  • Be aware of factors like deep and shallow areas, and currents.
  • Pay attention to local weather conditions and forecasts.
  • Wear life-jackets when boating.

Story by Hayes Kaufman/American Red Cross. Additional sources include the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Department of Health. For more Red Cross water safety tips, please click here.

We all have a role to play in preventing drownings

By Phil Hansen, CEO, American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recently reported that the number of drownings across the state has nearly hit a 10-year high.  Each loss of life I hear about hits home. Years ago, I was motivated to join the Red Cross after witnessing a terrible tragedy, like the ones we’ve seen this summer.

As a young man I was involved with a team of rescuers in a search for two young boys who were lost in a river near the camp where I worked. As one boy entered the deep and fast-moving water he had lost his footing and reached back for help, pulling the other boy into the water with him. While we searched the dark water, the mother of the boys stood on shore pleading with us to find them–sadly, neither survived.  I was to learn later that neither boy knew how to swim.

These drowning deaths were heartbreaking for all involved. Personally, I was so troubled by the event that I wanted to do something meaningful to help ensure the safety of children in and around the water – I became a water safety and CPR instructor for the Red Cross where I have continued to work ever since.

Summer is a beautiful time in Minnesota and we are fortunate to have access to pools, rivers and, of course, our 10,000+ lakes.  But the spate of recent drowning incidents has prompted many to ask how future downing tragedies can be prevented.  When it comes to water safety we all have a role to play in promoting and supporting water safety basics, such as never swimming alone, always swimming near a lifeguard, and making learning to swim a priority in our families. We know, and we teach, that multiple layers of protection make the difference when preventing water emergencies and responding to them when they happen.

Here are some ways you can make a difference:

  • Maintain constant supervision when watching children around water. Active supervision prevents water emergencies and saves lives.
  • Have children or inexperienced swimmers wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket around water, but do not rely on life jackets alone.
  • If someone is missing, check the water first. Seconds count in preventing death or disability.
  • Know how and when to call 9-1-1 or the local emergency number.
  • Enroll in CPR and First Aid courses to learn how to respond. Insist that babysitters, grandparents and others watching children around water know these lifesaving skills.
  • Know before you go—swim where you know it’s safe; walk carefully into open waters; do not dive.
  • Heed the warnings and instructions of lifeguards and other authorities as well as flags and signs.
  • Watch out for the dangerous “too’s”: too tired, too cold, too far from safety, and too much sun.

While the Minnesota summer is short and lovely, and should be enjoyed, there are both joys and hazards associated with recreation in and around water. We ask everyone to take on a role in water safety and to learn to respect the water.  No one is drown-proof, but together we can make our community a safer place to live, play and splash this summer.

%d bloggers like this: