Editor’s note: This article was originally published June 28, 2013
Monday morning I’ll swim 4 miles down Lake Austin for a cause I’m passionate about - drowning prevention.
In all, about 25 folks - including Olympic gold medalist (and new father) Brendan Hansen and Australian Olympic swimmer Elli Overton - will participate in the Colin’s Hope Got2Swim Lake Austin 4-Miler, a fund-raiser for Colin’s Hope, a non-profit organization that works to raise awareness about childhood drowning.
Colin Holst drowned in a crowded swimming pool at Life Time Fitness in South Austin in 2008. Shortly after his death, parents Jeff and Jana Holst created the non-profit to prevent other families from going through what they did.
The focus is on keeping children safe around water. Organizers emphasize the ABCs of water safety — adult supervision, barriers around pools and classes and cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
Unfortunately, every summer children drown in pools, lakes and rivers in Central Texas. Last weekend, a father and daughter died at McKinney Falls State Park. Another child remains hospitalized.
I’ll be thinking about them as I chug from the Pennybacker Bridge to Walsh Boat Landing near Hula Hut. The swim, which starts at 9 a.m., should take about 2 hours. I’ve swum that stretch several times before, and love it.
Another, longer swim is coming up on Aug. 29. To learn more about Colin’s Hope, go to www.colinshope.org.
I wrote the following article in 2010, but it contains good information about recognizing a drowning.
Drowning doesn’t look like what you think
Someone who’s drowning doesn’t yell or splash, they slip beneath water’s surface
Most people think they’ll recognize if someone is drowning.
Television programs and movies have taught us that when someone drowns, they flail their arms and yell. It’s noisy and noticeable, right?
In reality, drowning is more often silent than splashy. Someone who is drowning gasps for air and doesn’t waste effort waving his arms. He or she can’t call for help — it’s physiologically impossible.
"That’s why they call it the silent killer," says Jeff Holst, whose 4-year-old son Colin Holst died two years ago at an Austin health club. "Someone who’s drowning can’t make any noise when they’re underwater."
People who are truly drowning push down in the water with their hands to try to get their head above the surface. Their head is typically low in the water and tilted back. Their mouth is open and gasping. Their eyes are glassy, unable to focus or closed. Their body is vertical in the water, and they’re not kicking.
It’s called the instinctive drowning response.
"A lot of people don’t recognize that as a drowning," says Don Brent, chief of public safety for the Lower Colorado River Authority.
That’s not to say that someone who is yelling and splashing isn’t in trouble. But they might still be able to grab a lifeline. Once they start drowning, they’ve got just 20 to 60 seconds before they’re gone.
At least 15 people have drowned in the Austin area this year, according to statistics from the LCRA, the Austin Police Department and the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office. (Some deaths that occurred in area lakes might have been the result of suicide or injury from falling.)
Among the drowning deaths: Peter Cho, 18, who slipped under the surface while swimming in the chilly waters of Hamilton Pool on April 2 and never resurfaced. Stuart Kerley, 31, who leaped off the boom of a crane into Lake Travis on June 26, came up for a breath, then disappeared under the water. And Todd Mobley, 48, who jumped off a rope swing into Lake Travis after dark on July 17 and never came up
Two people drowned in Austin hotel swimming pools.
For every drowning death, many more nearly die. Dell Children’s Medical Center alone reported 26 near-drownings for the year through Aug. 26.
Nationwide, drowning is the second leading cause of accidental death in children age 15 and under, and half of the children who drown die within 25 yards of an adult. In 10 percent of those cases, the adult sees the child drown without recognizing he is in trouble, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Labor Day traditionally marks the last big holiday of the swimming and boating season. It’s a good time to remind your family and friends how to stay safe around the water.
Supervision and constant awareness are key, says Kim Tyson, past president of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance and a Red Cross lifeguard instructor trainer in Austin. But he recommends multiple layers of protection.
"Make sure that children learn to swim well, and are able to put their face in the water and turn their whole face to breathe while they swim the length of the pool," he says.
Use the buddy system and actively watch children. Get in the water with them, and communicate clearly with anyone else watching a child to make sure someone always has their eyes on him or her. Make sure non-swimmers wear a U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device. Keep children in shallow water, where they can stand.
Other tips? Never drink while swimming or boating. Don’t try to swim beyond your ability. Don’t jump or dive into shallow water, and beware of unseen obstacles in murky water.
Remember that a lake, unlike a swimming pool, doesn’t have an even bottom. Even if you are wading in ankle-deep water, you could step off a ledge into deep water.
"Understand what your limitations are; be familiar with the body of water you are in and what’s around you," says West Williams of the Austin Police Department’s Lake Patrol Unit.
Close the summer with a fun day at the lake or pool, not a tragedy.
TIPS TO PREVENT DROWNING:
• Don’t swim alone.
• Watch children at all times, even if there are lifeguards around — don’t assume someone else is watching them.
• Know the area and be aware of underwater hazards.
• Don’t mix alcohol and swimming or boating.
• Have a phone close by at all times when using a pool or spa.
• If a child is missing, look for him or her in the pool or spa first.
• Children and non-swimmers should wear U.S. Coast Guard-approved PFDs. Infant and toddler life jackets should roll kids onto their backs and keep their heads above water.
• Be a good role model. Buy a life jacket for yourself – and wear it.
Sources: National Drowning Prevention Alliance, LCRA