When our youngest daughter was just 18 months old, we were at a friend’s house here in Los Angeles. In the back was an unfenced pool. In a flash, she had toddled out to the pool and jumped in. Alertly, my wife jumped in — fully clothed — after her.
Another story. When I worked at the LA Times, we were at a party down in Orange County with some newspaper friends. We were all much younger parents then, and there were all kinds of little children around. I happened to be on duty at the hot tub when one of the kids, who was just 2, sank to the bottom. One second, she was up top; the next, she was completely under water, face up, eyes wide, unable to breathe. It happened just that fast. I fished her out.
Our daughter went on to do years and years at the LA County junior lifeguard program and a couple days ago finished her freshman year at Northwestern. That 2-year-old just graduated from Michigan.
These stories have happy endings.
Way, way, way too many don’t.
Please: let’s come together in the aftermath of the sorrowful drowning death of 19-month-old Emeline Miller, daughter of Olympic ski star Bode and his wife, Morgan, the professional volleyball player.
Let Emmy’s death be a call to action.
Everyone should learn how to swim.
Everyone can learn.
If I had Bill Gates money, I would teach everyone to swim. Here, as Rowdy Gaines likes to frame it, we have a "disease" with a ready "cure": water safety and swim lessons. Time, money and willpower can make a difference. Truly, each of us can make a difference. Together, we can effect powerful change.
In that spirit:
Even now, one of the vexing issues facing the Los Angeles 2028 organizing committee is what its legacy ought to be.
What makes the Olympic movement different is its focus on trying to make things better. From point No. 2 of the Olympic charter: "The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind ..."
Clearly, Emmy Miller's accident carries special resonance, and especially in Olympic circles.
Typically, the “legacy” issue involves the massive Infrastructure projects that accompany the delivery of a Games — things like roads, airports, train lines, sports palaces. When a new metro line makes getting from Point A to B easier, that — as the prevailing legacy argument in recent years has gone — makes life in that city better.
Because everything in Los Angeles is already built, it stands to reason that the legacy issue is hugely likely to take on another dimension.
The legacy puzzle is a long, long way from being figured out. An along-the-way suggestion: why not lobby the authorities to include a question on the 2020 U.S. Census — do you know how to swim?
Meanwhile, there's already a piece at work.
As part of the deal that swung the 2024 Games to Paris and 2028 to LA, the International Olympic Committee agreed to give the LA people a $180 million advance that would cover the organizing committee’s costs for an extra four years while providing as much as $160 million for local youth sports.
Mayor Eric Garcetti and LA28 bid leader Casey Wasserman led the campaign to bring the Games back to Southern California. Both just — get it. Swimming is a core element of the Olympic experience, and as it happened, Garcetti last Friday launched a program called SwimLA, aiming to teach everyone in the city between the ages of 4 and 17 how to swim.
Last year, the city’s parks and rec department provided 18,000 swim classes. This year: double that, 36,000. Nearly 50 city pools will increase daily hours to reach the goal.
In similar fashion, the LA84 Foundation — a big legacy piece from the 1984 Games — has since 1986 been funding a "Summer Splash" program around Southern California that, in part, provides swim lessons.
Because what’s little understood is that death by drowning is a crisis in plain sight that nonetheless hovers just under the radar. In the United States. And around the world.
It takes heartbreaking news of the sort involving little Emmy to get many if not most people to pay attention.
As reported by Associated Press, the 911 call to Orange County dispatchers just tears at you. No one should have to go through this — the panic, the terror, the ultimate horror:
“Yes, hurry. Hurry!” a woman shouts at the start of the call.
Asked by a male dispatcher what the emergency is, she tells him a 19-month-old girl fell into a backyard pool, is not breathing and has no pulse.
Asked how long the toddler was in the water, the woman, who sounds near tears, says, “We don’t know.”
Dispatcher: “Are you doing CPR or do you need me to coach you through it?”
“Coach me through it, please,” she replies.
Neither her voice nor others heard on the call are identified.
“I have a small pulse. I have a small pulse,” a man says urgently at one point, adding, “I need an oxygen machine here. Like now.”
“OK. They're coming as fast as they can,” the dispatcher says as he continues to give instructions.
“Come on, Emmy. Come on, baby girl,” the woman pleads.
According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 10 people drown each day in the United States.
To reiterate: 10 people die each day because they can’t swim.
That’s roughly 3,500 people each year.
At least one in five is a child under 14.
Only car accidents cause more unintentional deaths among children under 14 than drowning.
According to a survey the foundation has conducted and updated, most recently in 2017, two-thirds of African-American children, nearly half of Latino and four in 10 white kids have little to no swimming ability.
Around the world, as 28-time Olympic medalist Michael Phelps points out through his foundation, the problem is even more grave: half a million people drown every year, more than half children.
Swim lessons, per the USA Swimming Foundation, reduce the likelihood of childhood drowning by 88 percent.
Since its inception, the Phelps foundation — through what it calls its IM program — has consistently emphasized learn-to-swim.
Through its Make a Splash program, the USA Swimming Foundation since 2007 has offered free or reduced-cost swim lessons to some 6 million children.
Cullen Jones, the Olympic sprint gold medalist who almost drowned when he was 5 at an amusement park, has consistently been a Make a Splash mainstay.
So, too, Gaines, arguably the face and voice of swimming in the United States and himself a 1984 Olympic gold medalist.
“We live in this age of distraction,” Gaines said in a phone interview. “Not just around water. Texting and driving. When you text and drive, it can happen in a split second. The same thing can happen when you don’t watch your kid in the water.
“I get asked all the time: at what age can you teach your kid to swim? When your kid can learn to walk, they can escape from you. That’s when they should learn how to swim.”
A Make a Splash event last week in Orlando — Florida is No. 1 in the United States in drowning deaths for children ages 1 to 4, according to its state department of health — featured Gaines, Jones and Ryan Lochte, winner of 12 Olympic medals.
Afterward, Lochte, in a phone interview, grew reflective. His son, Caiden, just turned 1.
“We go in the swimming pool and he is comfortable being in the water and that’s the very first step,” Lochte said. “I know there’s a lot of kids out there, and parents, grown-ups, who are terrified of the water. For someone like me who loves to swim, loves the water, is so passionate about the water, it hurts me. Water is so kind. I want to pass the love to my son.”
He added a moment later, referring to Emmy Miller:
“Everyone was really touched. I personally was, because I knew Morgan. I have hung out with her a bunch of times when she was playing volleyball. I hung out with her in Colorado Springs,” where the U.S. Olympic Committee is based.
“I knew her. I knew Bode. Hearing that, I was terrified. I remember reading the story and reading it to my wife,” Kayla Rae Reid, “and me and her just started crying. We started thinking about, ‘What if that happened to our son?’ We wouldn’t know what we would do. It’s devastating.
“This has to stop. This drowning has to stop. And it can. With everyone’s help. From parents. And instructors. We can do it.”