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Nonprofit encourages competitive swimming

Swim Strong Foundation also offers scholarships dependent upon donations from individuals and companies. Photo courtesy Shawn Slevin
TimesLedger Newspapers

Jumping into a pool or the ocean seems like an innocent way of cooling off during the hot summer months, but each year many young people risk drowning because they never learned how to swim.

Now that June has arrived, one organization is trying to impart lifesaving swimming skills on city youth.

The Swim Strong Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to inspiring young people to achieve their potential through swimming. With three city locations — Flushing Meadows Pool, Far Rockaway High School and Brooklyn Sports Club — Swim Strong provides programs aimed at keeping swimmers safe and enriching their lives even on dry land.

“The lessons learned in swimming can be applied in a child’s academic environment and can be taken throughout their lives,” said Shawn Slevin, co-founder and president of Swim Strong, adding the foundation focuses on competitive swimming rather than social swimming. “It’s also one of the most beneficial exercise routines. You literally swim for your life.”

Slevin said the life lessons learned via competitive swimming include self-discipline, goal setting, commitment, perseverance, resiliency and teamwork. These traits can be immediately applied to a child’s academic work, taken into their career and given back to their communities.

But besides teaching life lessons and making youth healthier, Slevin said the foundation’s main goal is to stop the highly preventable drowning deaths among young people.

According to Slevin, drowning is the second-highest cause of death for children in the country. She also said African Americans have the highest rates of death by drowning — three times higher than any other demographic and, due to rip currents, the Rockaways are especially dangerous for inexperienced swimmers.

“The drowning deaths in the Rockaways almost always involve visitors,” she said. “The locals know not to swim there because of how dangerous it is.”

For Slevin, youths in underserved communities in Queens are most at risk of drowning because they lack the resources to afford swimming programs. It is in this aspect that Slevin believes Swim Strong can be most helpful.

“We make swimming accessible and affordable and are especially committed to low-income communities where children have not received swimming instruction,” she said. “We seek funding from individual donors, corporations, foundations and the government to serve those with the greatest need.”

The foundation has development and competitive programs, with the development programs aimed at getting students comfortable in the water. They have about 50 adults and teenage skilled swimmers teaching swimming in the pool and 15 or so people out of the pool helping with things like research and community outreach.

Swim Strong is an all-volunteer, 501(c)(3) organization. Alumni and parents help to teach swimming basics to the children and competitive swimmers instruct novice swimmers on technique. Experienced swimmers learn how to teach others and they develop mentoring and leadership skills. Collegiate and Olympic athletes teach the more competitive aspects, as well as provide water sport clinics.

As the swimmers progress in strength and ability, the foundation introduces them to water-based sports such as water polo and rowing, where college scholarships are available. Stronger swimmers are encouraged to pursue lifeguard certifications. Ultimately, these healthy, well-balanced adults go on to fully contribute to their communities.

Swim Strong was developed out of the swimming program at St. Sebastian’s Catholic Church in Woodside, where Slevin swam competitively. A former instructor in that program convinced her to stay on as a coach, where she has been for close to 40 years.

“I’m the luckiest woman in the world to do the work that I’m doing. It’s magic when you see students start to get it and you see the light bulb go off,” she said. “Drowning is preventable and this program is about getting people better educated and more aware of the options they have to stay safe and healthy.”

For more information, visit theswimstrongfoundation.org.

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