by Jackie Young

In 1937 our Aunt Gay Lee watched her brother Al Kallunki successfully train his little girl Sandy to swim before she could walk. Al was a swim and diving coach with a national reputation for training Olympic hopefuls. Now his daughter Sandy became a media darling appearing as the first swimming baby to ever appear in theatre newsreels. 

In 1950 after reading a newspaper account of a small child drowning in a backyard pond my Aunt Gay Lee was moved to action.  She had worked with Al as a swim instructor and watched him train Sandy. . She thought if you can do it with one why not many? She reasoned that with skills no child would suffer a senseless fall into the water without a chance to save themselves. Gay loved working with the babies and toddlers and knew that they could be taught skills at a very young age.  Her pioneering effort in training little ones in infant/toddler swim survival was so successful that she not only trained very small babies survival skills but went on to teach special needs children the skills as well.  She became nationally known through the media for her pioneering effort in Infant Swim Survival Safety in 1954. 

In the mid 1960’s Gay was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She didn’t let that stop her life’s work. Armed with the love of her families and her great sense of humor she continued teaching in between time outs for hospital treatments in the cancer center.  As she valiantly kept teaching she began to realize that she needed help so she invited me to train with her in 1969. I deeply admired my aunt. She was a widow with no children of her own and often said that God didn’t give her any so she could love many.  I wanted to train with her but had no background in teaching swimming and no idea if I could ever do what I observed her doing…. Her work with children was so incredible. Upon her advice I went and passed my American Red Cross Life Saving course. 

Equipped with only my love for the water and children and my love and admiration for my aunt, I jumped in the pool and started teaching under her guidance. My teaching supplies were a bathing suit and a bag of marshmallows for treats for the children, I had no idea then that my life’s work had just begun. I had no idea the joys and the frustrations that would come across my path in the years ahead. I helped her manage her very large class loads during her hospital stays while also starting a satellite center in another part of the city.

In 1971 Gay had opportunity to travel internationally and Press Releases went out.  Suddenly she became internationally known as film crews followed her through Israel, Paris and the Scandinavian countries filming her demonstrations in the water with infants. She also was an invited guest of the BBC as films of her swimming babies were beamed all over Europe by Satellite. When Gay Lee died in 1983 I had built my satellite center up to 400 students a month. It was apparent that she had passed the mantel on to me.

I had no idea that my continuing success as a second-generation trainer would someday become controversial in some circles.  It was shocking to me when pediatricians in the 1980’s began saying things like baby swimming would give your child ear infections.  I looked into it and found out there was no research and later on would be found to be false.  I was shocked again in the early 1990’s when they said that it was dangerous to teach babies to swim because they could suffer water intoxication…. I had no idea what they were talking about. . We certainly had never had a case going back over all the years of our families experience-training babies. When I looked into it I found out there had been only a few cases of water intoxication reported in the pediatric records.  That made me mad when I considered the rising drowning and near drowning accidents that were happening to little ones. In fact the drowning statistics in the US in many of our States are now the number one reason for accidental death in children under age 5 with the vast majority of accidents happening for children between ages 2 and 3.  To my chagrin my state of Oregon has made it to the top 10 on the list!

Now I am shocked again that this same organization, the AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) is now saying that Babies should not be taught swimming skills.  They say it is impossible to train babies in survival skills. They in fact advise that children should not begin swimming lessons until they are age 5! Sadly, many children will be drowning or near drowning statistics before that age! Again, after doing my homework there is still no research except for the recent Asher Study out of the University of Washington. This study demonstrates just the opposite of what the AAP is saying! This preliminary study shows that toddlers trained in some water safety skills indeed were able to retain the skills and were determined to be safer in the water than their counter parts that did not receive training.   The sad thing is that report has been buried in the AAP’s journal archives. (You will find that report in your packet)  In the meantime our dismal statistics in the US of children drowning and our near drowning accidents that are leaving children brain damaged or comatose continues to rise.

Why teach Infant Toddlers Swim Survival Safety? I find myself now 39 years down the road repeating the answers to the question over and over again.  My daughter Kelley Associate director of SWIMBABES is the third generation of family trainers. She has been teaching with me now for over 24 years and now she has to answer the question.  I thought training the babies was my life’s work but now I am beginning to think that answering the question and keeping researcher’s feet to the fire might instead be my life’s work. I will let history decide. The Question still remains, why teach infants toddlers swim survival safety? In the beginning I thought the answer was complex …now I know the answer is simple

 Some people ask the question with their own agenda in mind such as Sensationalism or Controversy or some competitive angle. Often the media is involved. But most

Often the question comes from a concerned grandparent or parent. Depending on whose doing the asking, the answer always requires wisdom patience and gentleness.

How can Infant/Toddlers learn to swim and survive safely?  If I am not there and my child or now my grandchild falls in the water, out of a boat or off of a dock, or wades beyond his depth can he swim and survive?  Can he get to a side of a riverbank? Can he reach the dock that is 3 feet over his head?  What if he falls in with his clothes on?  Simple questions…what is the answer? But I hear the critics; "they say what responsible parent would not be supervising or have their child in a life jacket around the water?   Sometimes I wonder if the critics have ever raised active two or three year olds? I often bristle at this kind of response as many parents who lose a child in a drowning accident are often made to feel that they are to blame because they weren’t there when the accident occurred.  Some of these parents are trying to cope with a near drowning accident that has left their child brain damaged or comatose.

As an example I cite the two parents, both registered nurses, whose child climbed out of his bed when they thought he was napping, quietly found his way to the backyard pool, climbed over the fence and fell in. He fell in where the corner of the pool cover had been pulled back far enough for dad’s pool cleaning equipment to be dropped in. Dad found his son’s lifeless body about an hour after his accidental fall, fully clothed, at the bottom of the pool. To maximize these parents guilt, a neighbor had mentioned our program to them before the accident and that’s how they found us afterwards. These very committed parents had their surviving 2-year-old girl signed up in our training program within 6 weeks of their loss. Believe me, they were not looking for adaptation classes at that time!   These parents, as part of their grief work, felt compelled to go on the News with our program to warn and encourage other parents to get their children in training. As a specialist in my field I have come to find out that my job is not to fix blame. My job is to help some frightened or grief stricken parents overcome their fears or to help them recover. My job must be preventative through good education.  

My Answer is what I told a weeping self-blaming dad at one of my classes whose 2 girls ages 15 months and 3 years old were in a boating accident in the Columbia River.  "Yes, you should have put their life jackets on and Yes you should have put the plug in the bottom of the Jet Boat, but you didn’t do everything wrong you provided them with this training and that's what its all about!"  They only survived because of their training in Swim Survival Safety.  The children were doing their Super Float in the cold deep waters of our mighty Columbia River until other boaters came to the rescue of the capsized family.   Swim Survival Safety is the back up skill to the life jacket. If all else fails the child has a chance to save himself. He agreed to help us tell his story to the media as well.

An associate asked me the question again at one of our first National Swim School Association conferences. She wanted to know what the difference was between adaptation and our program?  I answered her with a question, "when do you feel your new students are at greatest risk around the water?" She said, "that usually is when they are feeling pretty good about jumping in, going under and having a great time in the water. That's when we have to watch them like a hawk."  I asked again, are they able to get breaths on their own at that point? She said no.  

I answered that what we do as specialists in this field is train the child in a life-saving skill that bridges the gap until they are taking breaths on their own. Training them to roll over, relax and float will allow them maximum time to get air.  This is exactly what a good life jacket is supposed to accomplish.  I told her not only did the child start out with a skill but also people were so amazed to watch the babies who had accomplished the skill that everyone was watching them.  Her comment was her concern that the respect first and the training that she had observed always seemed to be equated with crying!

No one who loves children wants to see them cry, not mothers, not fathers, and especially grandparents, and I should know because now I am one.  We are the ones that are supposed to fix it so they won't cry.

That conversation was the beginning of a springboard of introspection on how we could change the image of swim survival training with out compromising the training.

When I had trained with my aunt in 1969, she believed that it would be too difficult to get the child to bond with us as instructors if we had to compete with their parents for their attention in the water.    The biggest problem we had, that I could see, was that at first the child didn’t want a stranger to handle them.  I began to wonder what would happen if we put the parents in the water like the adaptation classes but went on to train the babies? This posed a serious consideration about the increased liability with the additional untrained parents in the water. In addition I also knew that the parents couldn't accomplish what we trainers are able to accomplish without intensive training. 

My daughter Kelley brainstormed with me on finding a solution to this question.  We decided to experiment and bring the parents in the water to team with us.  We figured we could try it, if it worked we would perfect it, if not we could continue on as we had before.  We thought if we did all the progressions and corrections we could help each parent do back up skills building with their own individual children. We also felt that our parents would be able to follow up in their independent times in the water with their children with a lot more ability to keep their children safe. We were very excited about the possibility of the educational potential.  For us it was a giant leap of faith but one that has proved to make the biggest difference in our program.  What we found out is that we brought our program in alignment with the new era of parents who want hands on involvement in their child's education.  In the past dads were not allowed in the delivery rooms and parents left everything up to the professionals.  That day is dead and gone.  Educated people now want to partner in their children's progress.   This new era even encourages us to take responsibility even in our own health management. 

Dr. Brazelton, an American pediatrician and researcher became famous for the first research on how babies learn with his observations and behavioral studies between infants and mothers. He writes in his book Infants and Mothers of his discovery that there is no true learning without frustration. Our greatest challenge not only as parents but also as teachers is dealing with the various ways families and children deal with frustration. The primary caretaker, usually the mother can be a great help to us as teachers in learning how to assist in the training of the children in our swimming centers. More and More experienced pediatricians are listening to the mothers as they have learned that a mother’s intuition is a major factor in the care and nurturing of the small child. We as Instructors should be doing the same.

Over the years we have had many frustration curves with the changing needs of our business.  We can now say that the curves we have navigated in this learning process have been worth it. With our changes and personal growth we have also observed growth in our parents with their parenting skills. We have seen how parents learn to deal with their children’s frustrations with a greater amount of patience and understanding. Parents are learning how their children learn and are participating in the joy of the process. We have also found that a lot of the frustrations between parent child and teacher have been minimized as we have worked as a team committed to the child's success. We believe we are building a solid foundation for their interaction with future teachers as preparation for pre-school and kindergarten approach.

We feel that we now have the best of both worlds. We have a program that can grow not only in training children life saving skills but in encouraging parenting and pre school educational skills as well. When I watch our videos, both our under water videos and our shows, I am filled with Joy at the happiness I see between the parents and their children as they participate in their children's success! Just today in my morning classes a Mother hugged her child with tears streaming down her face at her daughter's achievement of her first blue ribbon for her turn and float

When our parents return from vacations beaming with pride at the crowds that came to watch their baby swim we receive our greatest rewards! Our babies have become our best business cards.

 At SWIMBABEStm we have learned that if you remain static you will not grow. Over a period of over 50 years our program has had to navigate many curves.  Patience and commitment will always be the requirements to overcome the curves that new demands bring. We have chosen to be committed to staying open to change and to continually grow.

The backbone of SWIMBABEStm success is largely due to our SWIMBABEStm Teams over the years. These family Crusaders were dubbed by the media as the World's Youngest Swim Team. The teams have been featured on the news consistently over the past twenty years. They have also been featured in magazine shows and in our own Productions. The purpose of the team is to demonstrate to the world the incredible skills that small children can achieve with training in the water.  The team also serves to educate as they entertain. Their volunteer efforts in benefit For Infant/Toddlers Swimming Safety and Health help draw attention to our need for research in this field.

Little did I know when I first started training babies in 1969 and then formed the team in 1980 that they would help take our message to the world. Little did I know that instead of leading them they would truly be leading me.  I never dreamed that as I proudly showed off my grandson Joshua, at 8 months of age after one week of lessons, in our made for TV Show Welcome Home, that the training would save his life 4 years later!  He fell off a dock fully clothed into 20 feet of icy glacier water in Lake Chelan. My Son called long distance to tell me the training had saved my grandson’s life! 

When I speak out now, I speak on behalf of a team of parent volunteers who stand behind SWIMBABES Infant/Toddler Swim Survival Safety. They are the many parent Celebrities and professionals from every walk of life who have donated their time, goods and services to help us take our message of safety and skills building to anyone who will listen. These very committed people also have donated many thousands of dollars in contributions and endorsements over a period of twenty years for SWIMBABES community benefits. They are the ones who have helped get this life saving message especially to families who have little ones at greatest risk around the water.

On behalf of the SWIMBABES tm families, Kelley and I would like to thank our National Swim School Association now the United Swim Schools Association, The World Aquatic Babies Congress, and Virginia Newman and Steve Graves for their support.  We want to thank them for contributions to our national effort for research in infant swim safety and for giving us an international platform of recognition. Because of these two organizations we now have the privilege of having reciprocal LINKS to you. We thank you for your kind invitation and are excited to join you in our efforts to navigate the next learning curves together.


Jackie Young/Founder /Director

Kelley Robinson/Associate Director Working in Benefit for Research in Infant Toddler’s Swimming Safety Copyright Jan 2002 SWIMBABEStm