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It’s good to see headlines in our daily paper or on TV and to see that one of our champion swimmers has won an international competition! It’s not so good to see that New Zealanders have drowned. But this regularly happens, usually because most Kiwis cannot swim - cannot swim, that is, with enough stamina and skill to keep out of harm’s way and to rescue others when necessary. Also, we don’t swim well enough to exercise. Reality check: Can YOU float? Swim on your side or back? Tread water? Swim 40 lengths? ( a kilometre) Can your children?
We must encourage and teach swimming and provide many more all-year swimming pools, for two main reasons. There are others.
One: New Zealand has a very long coastline and many rivers, and most people engage in some sort of water-based activity, boating, surfing, diving, fishing, canoeing and others. In NZ 2008 96 people drowned, 78% of them men - and there are many more near-drownings, also many cases of the surf lifeguards rescuing people who have over-estimated their capabilities or failed to learn beach safety. There are cases of people drowning while trying to save their relatives or friends. Others have no idea of beach safety and take no notice of warnings. People go in the water fully dressed or in unsuitable gear which makes swimming difficult. Many men think that because they are powerful and can swim a few rough strokes they could overcome a strong rip. In practice many have never experienced being out of their depth and have few skills to draw on.
Two: we are continually being told that we need to exercise more, and a target of 10,000 walking steps a day is prescribed. This is good, but there are several problems: outdoor walking is not possible for many of us in winter or bad weather and in some districts it is unpleasant (bad roads or no pavements) or unsafe. Also many people have joint or muscle problems that prevent them walking far. Walking, too, exercises mostly leg muscles.
Swimming however suits nearly everyone! The whole body is involved but the weight-bearing joints are given a partial rest though they are mobilised. The heart rate and rate of breathing are adjusted by the degree of effort we make. Actual swimming is not the only form of exercise that is available: aquacise and resisted walking are two of the many other uses of a pool.
But the leader writer of the NZ Herald on 18th January 2011 wrote: “Public baths are for places with cold climates and windswept coasts”. As a piece of crass ignorance this takes some beating. Does the writer think that a NZ beach in July is suited to teaching toddlers (or anyone!) to swim? or that regular exercise is possible? Or that everyone lives close to a suitable beach? I wonder indeed if that journalist can or does swim. This outlook may be a common one among politicians, too.
There is another attitude too, among some competitive swimmers who think that all pools should be 50 metres long, because that is the standard length for competition. This view would lead to very few pools being built due to the expense. Competition is the cream on the cake, not the cake itself, which is a large body of swimmers of all ages and types.
So what’s the problem?
It’s quite simple: we just have far too few indoor swimming pools. Big cities have several but they are often very crowded. In smaller centres there may be open-air pools but they are available only for about a quarter of the year: bad value for money.
Most schools used to have a pool, which was nearly always open air, but many of those are unused now because of the cost of maintenance. School pools are generally only waist deep which gives a false sense of security. For confidence training, water at least 2 metres deep is necessary, and lifesaving training is much more realistic when the water is deep.
Rural districts are the worst served. The money raised by rates is usually insufficient to maintain the roads properly, let alone to build swimming pools, and there is often no pool within a two hour drive.
Where there is some money, there is often a “think big” policy: let’s build one monster complex with slides, wave making machines and similar frills. Such facilities may be fun, except that they are very expensive and need a dedicated pool or part of one. Priorities please! The same is true of diving boards: diving and swimming are not really related activities, except that diving needs a pool. We need MANY smaller basic pools within easy reach of more people.
Who is to pay for the hundreds of pools we need? Few councils can afford them: but if many more people swim it eventually will save the taxpayer a lot in the cost of treating conditions which are caused by lack of exercise. The human and financial cost of fatalities due to drowning indirectly affects us all. We seem to have the money to build big stadiums and host international events for entertainment. The beneficiaries of this expenditure are mainly hotels, restaurants and the travel industry.
Obviously we cannot build all the pools required in a short time, but Government should start a programme which will provide all schools with a decent all-weather pool, probably heated by a heat-pump and assisted by solar means. This must be open to the general public out of school hours.
A properly run pool will offer affordable swimming lessons for people of all ages, with some specifically for (eg) older women, obese people and so on, as well as beginners. There can be competition, but it must not take precedence as it so often does. Not all the pools will be 25 metres long: all the necessary skills can be taught in a smaller one, but there must be a “deep end” to give experience in being out of one's depth.
Of course, it would be ideal if every swimming pool had exercise equipment and a hall so that dry land exercise is possible too: and advice on healthy activity and eating ought to be available.
How pointless it is to tell us to exercise when it’s very hard for most of us and neither local not central Government will help!
Experience shows too that the availability of a school pool encourages kids to attend school: and cuts juvenile crime during the holiday breaks
An Overseas Example
The closest part of the United Kingdom to New Zealand is the Shetland Islands, way north of Scotland (measure on a globe if you don’t believe me!). Every major island (some with less than 1000 inhabitants) has at least one Leisure Centre with exercise equipment and paid instructors, an exercise hall and an indoor heated SWIMMING POOL though mostly not of the standard 25metre length.
The illustration shows the Leisure Centre on the Shetland Island of Yell, population 957. The pool is 12.5 metres long with 3 lanes and is well patronised.