Given the excitement surrounding the Athletic Business Conference & Expo last week, you might have missed a front-page story in Thursday's Wall Street Journal about colleges and universities requiring students to either pass a swimming test or take a beginner's learn-to-swim class in order to graduate. Not everyone is a fan of the prerequisites. "I guess it's a noble skill to have," 21-year-old Jessica McSweeney, a senior Human Development major at Cornell University, told reporter Melissa Korn. "But I don't intend to be a water-going person."
Neither does someone who falls off a boat and drowns because that person can't swim.
"Cornell's century-old requirement is among the last remaining at colleges," Korn wrote. "The tests, which generally require students to prove they can paddle a few lengths of the pool, are among the more unusual graduation requirements in academia. But as schools focus more on career skills than on life skills, support for the requirements has been drying up."
High school and college students are drowning in physical education swimming classes and team pool workouts. Fourteen-year-old Malvrick Donkor slipped beneath the surface at Connecticut's Manchester High School pool the day before Thanksgiving and reportedly went undetected for 17 minutes, and Arianna Alioto, an 18-year-old varsity soccer player for Northern Michigan University, drowned last week in the Physical Education Instructional Facility pool after a team workout and was discovered after about 30 minutes. (Don't even get me started on the role lifeguards played - or didn't play - in those two cases.)
Meanwhile, the National Swimming Pool Foundation's Step Into Swim campaign is generating big bucks in a concerted effort to create one million new swimmers over the next decade.
All this, and still colleges and universities are throwing in the towel on an activity that can accompany students into old age?
The tests we're talking about here aren't hard to pass. McSweeney, for example, would receive her diploma if only she would stop whining to the national media and swim 75 yards in the university's pool. There won't even be any time limits, so she can take all day if she wants. The tests at MIT and Notre Dame are a bit tougher; students there must swim 100 yards, with no time restriction. And expectant grads at Bryn Mawr College have to swim non-stop for 10 minutes, float on their backs for one minute and then tread water for another minute.
Heck, I'm 44 years old and I can do that. My two kids, ages 12 and 15, swim 4,000 yards a night as competitive swimmers. But even if they weren't on swim teams, my wife and I would instill in them the value of swimming for fun, health and safety.
I recently spoke with Tom Lachocki, the NSPF's CEO, for a story about Step Into Swim that will appear in the January issue of AB. "By creating more swimmers, we do three things," he told me. "We help reduce drowning rates, because people who are more confident in water are less prone to drowning; we reduce healthcare cost inflation, because we now have opened the door to a spectrum of aquatic activities; and we help create growth for a health-focused economic segment."
Fred DeBruyn, director of aquatics and assistant physical education director at Cornell, got straight to the point with Korn. "Anything that prevents people from dying needlessly is a valuable skill," he told her, adding that many non-swimmers don't know how to swim because their parents never learned, so college instruction can "break the cycle" of not passing on that life skill to younger generations.
I'm not saying all colleges and universities should have a swimming requirement to graduate; clearly, most don't. But I also don't see the need to abandon the ones that still exist. For many people, college might be a last chance to properly learn the sport, which is really so much more than just a sport. What's wrong with that?