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Learn to swim, avoid tragedy

Rescue squadrons from the DLRG and the fire brigade are standing at the edge of a river and want to board a boat

Too many children are drowning in Europe. A university initiative would therefore like to improve the ability of the youngest to swim. The first results are encouraging, but problems with infrastructure and staff remain.

Death by drowning is, in most cases, a silent tragedy. The victims simply disappear under the surface of the water and never appear again. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), according to the latest studies, around 19,000 people die every year from drowning in Europe alone (as of 2019). In children aged five to 14, it is the third leading cause of death after infections and accidents. Many of these deaths might have been avoided if children had been trained to swim earlier and better.

According to the German Life Saving Society (DLRG), 299 people drowned in Germany alone in 2021, 17 of whom were children under the age of ten. According to the school curriculum, every child should be able to swim by the end of elementary school. But the reality is often different. “We consider the situation in teaching to be dramatic, particularly due to the situation that arose during the corona pandemic,” DLRG spokesman Martin Holzhause told DW.

In an indoor swimming pool there are two armbands and a swimming board on a starting block
In many European countries, there are too few indoor swimming pools to make all children safe swimmers

In the past two and a half years, almost no swimming training could take place due to the infection process. Even before the pandemic, the possibilities were anything but sufficient due to too few swimming pools, increasing swimming pool closures, insufficient hall capacities and the lack of qualified teachers.

60 percent are not confident swimmers

The most recent Forsa survey commissioned by the DLRG in 2017 showed even then that 59 percent of ten-year-olds are not confident swimmers. Compared to the previous study – from 2010 – this result meant deterioration of around ten percent.

“We are now trying to catch up with special campaigns,” says Holzhause. “And we will bring forward our next Forsa survey. But that shows the whole drama. The problem has been recognized and is also being promoted by the state. But there is often a lack of hall capacities and times.”

Rescue squadrons from the DLRG and the fire brigade are standing at the edge of a river and want to board a boat
Sad everyday life: DLRG teams have to go out, again and again, to save drowning people – they often come too late

In addition, the assessment of swimming ability is not uniformly regulated not only in Germany but throughout Europe. All countries and associations make their own judgment and their own regulations – an objective assessment of the (swimming) situation is therefore difficult if not impossible. The results of the DLRG are, for example, a parent survey that is representative but is subject to greater fluctuations. “We at the DLRG would be very pleased if there were scientific methods for objective recording,” says Holzhause.

Like a Pisa study

It is precisely this problem that European universities – led by the German Sport University Cologne (DSHS) – now want to take on and implement within the framework of the Erasmus program initiated and financed by the European Union. “It’s about developing a complex measurement method to record the children’s motor skills, but also to take into account the children’s self-assessment of their own abilities,” says swimming expert Ilka Staub from the Institute for Teaching Skills in Sports at the DSHS of DW. The start should be in August 2022.

A boy exhales underwater, creating large air bubbles
By the end of elementary school at the latest, every child should be able to move safely in and underwater

You can imagine the project as a Pisa study. Seven countries (France, Germany, Norway, Belgium, Portugal, Lithuania, and Poland) and their universities and cities are participating. 100 children are tested and questioned at a time. In this way, it should also be determined which political and cultural approach there is to “learning to swim” in the participating countries. First of all, it is about depicting a status quo. “That will give us an idea of ​​what we can improve and who we can learn from,” says Staub.

Portugal has cultural ties to swimming

The latest WHO results from 2019 show that the EU average is 2.1 drowning deaths per 100,000 population. A positive example is Germany (0.5) and Portugal, which also participates in the Erasmus program and is in the top third of the ranking with an average value of 0.8 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Aldo Matos da Costa thinks he knows one reason for this: “I believe that more children can swim today because the infrastructure has been greatly expanded over the past 25 or 30 years. Today there are more than 600 swimming pools in Portugal,” says the President of the Portuguese Swimming Federation. “This has created more opportunities for swimming lessons at school.”

“Swimming is a cultural tradition in Portugal,” Joao Paulo Vilas-Boas told DW. He teaches sports at the University of Porto. “Portugal has had swimming schools for young children for many years. Unfortunately, there are also many cases of drowning, so people are sensitive to the issue.”

Lithuania is increasingly working to improve

In contrast to Germany and Portugal, the survey on swimming ability ranks Erasmus program participants fourth from last. Here the value is 5.4. At the Lithuanian swimming association, those responsible have been trying to counteract this for a long time.

Lithuanian Milda Seibokaite stands in front of a swimming pool
Milda Seibokaite sees her first successes

“In 2009 it was discovered that too many people were dying from drowning in Lithuania. As a result, the Lithuanian Swimming Federation and the government initiated a special program to encourage more children to swim. It was aimed particularly at second graders,” Milda Seibokaite told DW. She is the head of the information and special projects department at the Lithuanian Swimming Federation. The project has already produced positive results: “Ten to twelve years ago, 25 to 30 children drowned in Lithuania every year, now it’s only four to eight,” she says.

Donatas Balandis, who works as a swimming coach in Lithuania’s capital Vilnius, also sees a successful development. “Swimming has become fashionable in the last ten years,” he says. “If you look at the number of children taking swimming lessons both in and out of school, swimming just surpasses basketball, which has always been the number one sport in Lithuania.”

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