Tina Sfondeles: Chicago Park District tries to break Guinness record, dunk swimmers’ fear

Written By BY TINA SFONDELES Staff Reporter Posted: 06/22/2014, 02:28am
Array Celeste Wang helps her daughter, Valerie Wang, 2 years old, get used to going under the water. The Chicago Park District is trying to set a Guinness World record for the largest simultaneous swimming lesson ever conducted. At Ping Tom Park, instructors teach a swim lesson at the same time as 72 other pools in Chicago and also around the world.| Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

I’m 30 and I can’t swim.

And a 2-year-old girl named Valerie was outshining me Friday morning at a Chicago Park District pool.

The life skill that most children are taught never stuck for me.

I was delicately placed — not thrown, I’d like to think — into a pool when I was 3. No dice. I believe my mother’s account was that “baby didn’t like the water.” The end.

I’ve traveled to beautiful places — oceans, seas and lakes — and have only dipped in the water with embarrassing “wings” or inner tubes. Or I’d just stay in tour boats while I watched adventurous snorkelers.

Friday marked the beginning of my path to battling a fear. I don’t fear drowning. I don’t fear water. I simply fear and can’t fathom the logistics of sticking your head under water and not breathing.

But Eric Fischer has taught swimming at the park district since 1983. He has taught thousands of Chicagoans how to swim. So I placed some trust in him Friday as he joined dozens of swimmers at the Ping Tom Memorial Park Pool on the Near South Side.

The park district took part in an attempt at beating a Guinness World Record for the “world’s largest swimming lesson” at 73 of its pools. Swimmers in 20 countries participated in the simultaneous event, a 30-minute introduction to swimming class. And we’ll know in a couple of months whether it helped break the record.

Fischer, one of five swim instructors leading the lesson, said he has seen all types of swimmers.

“We have what we call jokingly the white knuckles, where they grab the gutter and they won’t let go until they’re comfortable just being in the water,” he said. “And we have the people who are in triathlons who want to elevate their level of swimming.”

Friday’s crowd was a mix of toddlers, teens and adults. I was the only adult in my group, but the kids next to me were kind and supportive — perhaps sympathetic — of my lack of swim skills.

First we learned how to safely get into the pool, then into some more complicated steps, like dunking yourself in the water five times. Then to blowing bubbles above water and below. Fischer taught me to do something I had never done: float. We floated with our faces under water, and then on our backs. We even started face-down and rolled into a back float. Magical. At least for me.

Friday’s event was about more than just a world record. Its purpose was to shed light on sobering statistics. Every day about 10 people die from accidental drowning, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We’re obligated at the Chicago Park District, as parents, as guardians, as adults to get all these kids in the water to learn how to swim, preferably at a young age,” Commissioner Mike Kelly said. “The park district alone controls 91 pools in Chicago, which makes us the largest pool operation in the country, and with 26 miles of lakefront, it’s really our obligation to make sure that we get this right and teach those kids how to swim.”

Email: tsfondeles@suntimes.com

Twitter: @TinaSfon

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