Panel Paper: Why Should We Care about Swimming and Drowning Disparities In a Period of Austerity?

Friday, November 9, 2012 : 10:25 AM
Adams (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Carol Irwin, University of Memphis

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drowning is a leading unintentional cause of morbidity and mortality for children from birth to 19 years of age.1 Fatal unintentional drowning rates for 5-14 year old African Americans are more than three times higher than for their white peers .1 Further, for every child drowning death, there are 2 non-fatal drowning incidents that lead to hospitalization.2 Non-fatal drowning injuries typically result in brain damage and long-term disability.2,3 Total lifetime costs associated with drowning were estimated to exceed $5.3 billion in 2000, including $2.6 billion for children aged 0 to 14 years.4 Along with the disproportionate number of minority drowning deaths, the healthcare economic burden due to non-fatal drowning creates an additional disparity for underserved populations.

In 2008 and 2010, USA Swimming, the National Governing Body (NGB) for the sport, commissioned nation-wide research studies to determine swimming ability and patterns for minority populations. Results from the most recent 2010 study for swimming ability by race/ethnicity confirms significant differences with African American respondents reporting a 69% “no or low” swimming ability rate. Hispanic/Latino respondents noted a 57.9% “no or low” swimming ability rate as compared to the White rate of 41.8%. Also there was evidence of economic differences with 65.6% of children on a free or reduced lunch program reported “no or low” swimming ability, while 50.2% of those who did not qualify for a free or reduced lunch program reported “no or low” swimming ability. Racial disparities involving ability logically then persist into competitive swimming. In 2008, USA Swimming reported that 92.5% of their competitive swim club members reported their ethnicity as Caucasian, 4.2% as Hispanic, 1.7% as African American, 1.1% as Asian/Pacific Islander, and 0.5% reported as Native American. Additionally, in 2010, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) reported all men’s and women’s swim programs’ approximate racial identity data for student-athletes were:  White 85.6%; Asian 3.3%; Hispanic 3.5%; African American 1.6%; American Indian 0.25%; two or more races 0.75%; and Other was 5%, which included athletes from other countries.5 Added to these lopsided numbers was the fact that there was only one African American swimmer on the 2008 US Olympic swimming team.    

Ascertaining why minority populations do not participate in the sport was explored, and research results from both nation-wide USA Swimming research studies revealed that fear of drowning/injury to be the most significant reason why minority populations have inadequate swimming ability. Hierarchical regression analyses confirmed the following factors to be significantly related to low swimming ability:  Fear of drowning/injury; lack of parental encouragement; personal appearance barriers (e.g., water & chemicals damaging hair, skin); and more minor, yet still significant, variables of financial issues; and access to swimming facility problems. The first two variables, fear and parental encouragement, were decidedly noteworthy with “fear of drowning” accounting for the most variance. Focus group responses overwhelmingly matched survey numbers, and consistently pointed to the “fear” factor as the primary reason why minority populations do not participate in swimming.