DURHAM, N.C. – Though several children approach the edge of Brodie Pool with cautiousness or trepidation, within an hour’s time most are comfortable enough to splash and play in the water alongside a Blue Devil swimmer or diver. Achieving that comfort and confidence in the pool is the mission of the Swimming with the Blue Devils program, which wrapped up its final clinic of the academic year this month on East Campus.
Under the leadership of Blue Devil senior captain Maddie Rusch, the free water safety clinic returned to Duke following a one-year hiatus. Rusch and her teammates hosted over 60 children from the Durham community over the span of three clinics this season, imparting important and potentially life-saving swimming skills.
“I sit the group down before each clinic and talk about the statistics with drowning,” Rusch says. “It’s the second-leading cause of accidental deaths with children under 14. If you have one lesson, it reduces your risk of drowning by 88 percent.”
At each clinic, Rusch and teammate Isabella Paez paired their Blue Devil teammates with children of all ages. The swimmers and divers help acclimate participants – many of whom have limited swimming experience – by easing them into the pool and incorporating floatation devices like noodles and kickboards to make them feel more relaxed. With the help of their Blue Devil partners, children learn how to stick their head underwater, float and swim basic strokes, and eventually move into playing games with other participants. All of this occurs with parents sitting nearby on the pool deck, increasing their level of comfort.
“Swimming in general is important,” said Kristen Randall, who brought her daughter Sawyer to the most recent clinic. “My daughter is just starting to get into it so I wanted her to get experience first before she takes her swim lessons … I think it’s great. I know my daughter is going to talk about her buddy for two, three months after.”
The Swimming with the Blue Devils program was started by former Blue Devil diver Lauren Gonzalez in the fall of 2007. While taking a class at Duke that tackled the issue of social injustices, Gonzalez recognized the correlation between minority or inner-city populations with limited access to water and a high number of drowning incidents. Through further research, she learned that children who grow up in those households are often indoctrinated into a culture that associates swimming pools and water with fear.
“We all grew up knowing how to swim and so we assume every kid knows how to swim,” Rusch says of herself and her Duke teammates. “But for a lot of people in this community, it’s expensive to have lessons, it’s expensive to have access to a pool. Well, we have access to a pool and we have the knowledge and the comfort around the pool, so it’s easy for us to do it. I just think, ‘Why not us? We’re the perfect people to do it.’ It means a lot. If we can just help out one kid – make their parents more comfortable and help them have fun and possibly save a life, it’s awesome.”
Gonzalez got connected with Sam Miglarese, who serves as the director of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, to recruit students from Durham elementary schools to participate in the clinics. Miglarese has continued to work with the Duke swimmers and divers who have headed up the program each year.
“Ever since the swim and dive team initiated with my office, it has provided the opportunity for our youngsters in the neighborhoods, including children of our employees, to meet with Duke students and learn about water safety and basic swimming protocol,” Miglarese said. “We had a hiatus for about one year but Maddie and Isabella picked up the ball and coordinated the effort. It’s a wonderful thing to see. I see all these parents looking very intently on their children working with our swim and dive team. I am proud of our students and I’m honored to be a part of the program.”
For Rusch, the time spent coordinating teammates to volunteer at each clinic and complete the necessary requirements beforehand, in addition to efforts marketing the program, is well worth it given the positive outcomes. She says she enjoys experiencing first-hand the difference one hour of instruction can make, and seeing children leave the pool confident and excited about swimming.
“Even though they don’t know us and can be shy at first, they love the older kids and copying you,” Rusch says. “If you ease into it, they’ll mimic you and kind of ease into it too. And if you’re animated and bubbly and just act calm, then they’ll calm down and be comfortable with you. It takes a little bit at first, but once they kind of break through, it’s awesome and they have so much fun.”
Eliza Mathew, a program coordinator in Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, appreciates the impact Rusch and her teammates have made this season.
“Maddie’s done a great job of getting the swim team together and getting them really excited,” Mathew says. “She has such a teacher’s heart, which is really great to see. When she pulls them together at the beginning and they talk about safety in the pool, and towards the end when they get together and talk about what they learn, it’s very positive. That’s been really great to see from her, but also how she captures the rest of the swim team to feel that same way and get connected to the Durham community, which I think is really important.”
Durham parents say they’re grateful for the experiences their children gain at the clinics and for the mentorship role that the Blue Devil swimmers and divers provide.
“It’s a good opportunity for them to learn,” said Reyna Jimenez. “I’m really thankful for it, especially the fact that it’s free. Being willing to help the community says a lot about the school itself.”
Tia Brown Black brought her two children – both under the age of nine – to the most recent clinic at Brodie.
“My kids love water so I thought it would be a good idea for them to be as safe as possible in the water,” she said. “I thought this would be a good opportunity to learn water safety. I’m pleasantly surprised – I didn’t think the ratio would be one-on-one. I love it.”
Rusch hopes the program will continue to grow and reach even more children next year. For information on future Swimming with the Blue Devils clinics, stay connected with the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership at community.duke.edu.