In the fall of 1990, Frederick Douglass High School swim coach Jim Woods' daughter Katie was a freshman at the school and she announced that she wanted to be a swimmer.
“She was not a swimmer. In the winter break, we had about eight or nine days and I took her to Theresa Banks every day and through sheer will and her wanting to do it, she became a swimmer,” Woods said. “They told her she would not make the team that year, that she wouldn't swim in any meets. But we set a goal for her that by the end of the season, she would swim in a 50- or 100[-yard race] and the last week she swam the 50-yard freestyle as a freshman against Northwestern and she won.”
Because he did this for his own daughter, Woods said, he felt it was the right thing to do for student-athletes throughout the county.
Swimming, he said, is a skill everyone should have, if not purely for safety measures.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was an average of 3,533 fatal unintentional drownings annually in the United States from 2005-09. An additional 347 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents.
About 10 people die from unintentional drowning every day in this country, two of them are children aged 14 or younger, according to the CDC.
The USA Swimming Foundation found 75 percent of African-American and 60 percent of Latino children cannot swim.
Aside from the safety aspect, Woods said swimming is a healthy sport athletes can pursue for a lifetime.
“I was a football player. I was at West Point Prep and I blew out my left knee. I played one game and that was the end of it,” Woods said. “I have had six major knee operations. That's not a sport you can do your entire life. You can be a competitive swimmer or you can do it for fitness and you can carry on your entire life.”
Its been an unspoken policy among county coaches, Eleanor Roosevelt coach Andrew Zanghi said, that swim teams do not cut based on ability.
This year, however, the county has established a new rule that prohibits coaches from keeping athletes on the team who cannot pass a standard swim test.
By the end of the week swimmers must prove they can swim 50 meters, tread water for a minute and float on their backs for the same duration.
There are several reasons for that, Laurel High coach and league coordinator John Venit said.
“It's unfortunate that a lot of teenagers these days can't swim. But we are not a learn-to-swim program. We get two coaches per team and trying to teach someone to swim, it doesn't help the other kids,” Venit said. “But we have had success stories. Kids have gone out and become good swimmers from what they started doing in high school.”
Venit said, however, that the hope is anyone who cannot pass the initial swim test will be encouraged to take a class that will be run by some of the county's coaches.
Most of the county's more competitive athletes have learned to swim at an early age in the Prince-Mont Swim League that includes 40 neighborhood teams spread across six counties in Maryland and Washington, D.C.
Venit said he has contacted coaches to see who would be interested in volunteering their time for one or two sessions.
Zanghi said he believed most coaches would be willing to, given the cause.
Safety is an important aspect of swimming, he added, but coaches also understand the other benefits of being part of the team, including the cohesive atmosphere, learning discipline and the importance of physical fitness.
Zanghi and the 13-time defending Prince George's County champion Raiders are in an unusual position.
Though Zanghi said he still has people come to tryouts with little to no swimming experience, his 100-plus person roster that includes many year-round swimmers affords him the opportunity to provide the lesser experienced students with more attention to the basics.
The new ruling could hurt numbers at other schools with smaller participation numbers.
But the main goal is to encourage more students to learn how to swim.
Woods said the biggest obstacle early on is alleviating the fear of water.
The more kids who learn to swim now, he added, the more likely they will teach their family members, and in turn, their children.
Swimming skills also can translate into job opportunities, Venit said, as teachers and lifeguards.
“We try to teach the kids to do their best and every day you're going to improve. I've never had anyone quit,” Woods said. “The issue is not that we want to develop Olympic quality swimmers, but this is a skill these kids will have for the rest of their lives.”