Making a Splash

Becoming buoyant: Gonzalez teaches Jhanea Wilcher the tricky skill of staying afloat, while Quaniesha Mack relies on a kickboard.


Megan Morr

A little boy clad in Finding Nemo swim trunks scampers across the deck of the pool on the lower level of the Wilson Recreation Center, older sister in tow, and joins a cluster of children that has gathered at one end of the cavernous aquatic pavilion.

They're late. The group has already begun a series of stretches, and the two take up spots on the edge of the group and join in. They do five right-arm circles. Forward, and backward. Then five on the left. They pull their right arms across their chests, then their left arms.

Interspersed among the children are a handful of Duke students. At the head of the group, Amy Brown '09 calls out each new stretch. She shows the children how to do a "chicken wing," raising her right elbow up above her head and dropping her hand down between her shoulder blades, then moving her elbow in a circle. Then she demonstrates a "butterfly."

"Put your feet together," she says, sitting down. "Then put your elbows on your knees and push down really gently." The children follow her lead.

After a bit more stretching, and some small talk, they move toward the pool. It's time to swim.

Swimming with the Blue Devils, a monthly series of free, student-run swim clinics for local children that runs throughout the school year, was first developed by Lauren Gonzalez '09, a South Florida native and a member of Duke's varsity diving team.

"Growing up, the pool was really a big part of my life," she says. From the time she was a small child, Gonzalez took regular swim lessons and swam recreationally. In eighth grade, she began diving competitively. By her junior year of high school, she was not only competing, but also certified to teach junior swim lessons.

That year, while conducting research for a project in a social-justice course, she came across a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on accidental drowning. The study, conducted by a team of researchers from the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, indicated that between 2000 and 2004, black children ages five through fourteen died in drowning accidents at 3.2 times the rate of white children.

From her own experience swimming, she had noticed that her peers were predominantly white, and she envisioned a free program to help underprivileged kids get comfortable in and around the water.

At Duke, she has made that vision a reality. The summer before her sophomore year, she approached Leslie Barnes, director of student-athlete development, and together the two plotted a course for the program. Gonzalez contacted administrators at the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, who helped her market the program—in both English and Spanish—to children in the local public schools. She secured a Sunday evening slot at the Wilson Center's pool. She recruited teammates on the swimming and diving teams, many of whom had taught lessons in high school or during summer vacations, to serve as instructors.

Over its two years of existence, the program has grown in popularity, among participants—"By the end of class," Gonzalez says, "they are asking, 'When do we get to come back?' "—and instructors alike. In a typical month, Gonzalez tries to line up ten instructors to work with thirty children, a monumental feat. "A lot of student-athletes are very busy already with their individual involvements, athletic schedules, and academic schedules," Barnes says. "To get a student-athlete to commit to work with kids once a month for two years is impressive."

On this particular Sunday, perhaps on account of a nasty rainstorm, the turnout is somewhat low. Six instructors—four members of the swim team and two graduate-student volunteers—divvy up a group of children that numbers fourteen once all stragglers are accounted for.

"Five- and six-year-olds, come stand by this giant," Brown says, pointing to Justin Mullen '09, who stands 6'8" tall.

Mullen and Garrick Berberich '08 make their way to the far end of lane one with the boy in the Finding Nemo trunks, who also happens to be named Justin, and two girls. The girls' mother, Jennifer Diallo, sits against the side wall, watching as Berberich helps her daughters float on their backs. Belamy, who is five, is afraid of everything, Diallo says. Gabriella, a year older, is a daredevil. "But living in North Carolina, you need to know how to swim. Even the strongest swimmers need a little help."

Both girls attended a YMCA camp last year, but Diallo balked at paying an extra swimming fee. She says she learned about Swimming with the Blue Devils from a flier posted in the public school where she works. This is the second time they've come. Her daughters love getting in the pool, and have been talking about it all week.

A few lanes over, Brown has all the seven- to nine-year-olds jump into the pool and take up spots along the wall. Their parents look on as they practice ducking their heads part way underwater. "When you blow bubbles, I want to see big bubbles coming up," Brown says.

As they come up from blowing bubbles, she passes out kickboards that are stacked at the end of the lane. "Who can tell me where I should be holding my kickboard?" she asks. Three girls take turns guessing, holding onto the wall with one hand, kickboards in the other. Brown takes a step back. "Who wants to kick out to me first?"

Most of the children seem relatively comfortable in the water, which is a good sign. Gonzalez estimates that three-quarters of the children who attend any given session are repeats. But there are always a handful of newcomers.

Two more lanes over, graduate student David Kahler and Megan Toney '09 are leading a small fleet of ten- and eleven-year-olds across the pool on kickboards. One boy takes small strokes with his arm to keep up, but all make it to the end without assistance. When they make it back, Kahler and Toney up the ante.

"What we're going to do now is front stroke," Toney tells her pupils. She floats on her back, drifting out toward the first row of flags as she explains the basics to them. They will put their heads in the water and kick, then stroke with their arms as they breathe to the side. The first pair, a boy and a girl, take off.

"Really good job of putting your face in the water," Toney tells them. "That was good."

The highlight of the day, for kids and instructors alike, is clearly the end of the lesson, which is devoted to a combination of lounging in the hot tub and leaping off the diving boards. Brown leads the way, taking her group over for a soak, and the others soon follow.

Berberich and five-year-old Justin climb up onto the two low dives, and inch out toward the end. "Do you want to go first?" Berberich asks, bouncing up and down. Justin smiles.

Katie Bieze '09 is treading water under the boards, with a red lifeguard float under her arms, ready to catch him. "Do you want me to come closer, or go farther?" she asks.

"Farther," Berberich says. "He's a big jumper."

Without a pause, Justin leaps out, splashing into the pool right in front of Bieze. Berberich follows, and turns to catch Justin's older sister, who leaps into his arms.

The children take turns mounting the board. Some are fearless, jumping straight into the water. Others need a little urging. A girl in a striped bathing suit bounces up and down on the board, but looks nervous. Berberich climbs onto the other board. "We'll go at the same time," he says. "One, two, three." She keeps bouncing. "You didn't go!" he yells, as he sails headfirst into the water.

Finally, she holds her nose and leaps in. Splash.

Other children are watching the action from the warmth of the hot tub. They crowd around Brown, who talks to them about swimming and about the upcoming Olympics. "We can't have clinics over the summer," she says, "but you can watch swimming on TV." Gonzalez has also compiled a list of summer swimming opportunities to hand out to parents.

Deviere Autry, thirteen, has had enough of the low dive. He wants something more challenging. He makes for the high dive.

At the top of the ladder, he slows down. He almost makes it to the end of the board before turning around and heading back down.

The girl in the striped suit is next up. She promises to go off at the same time as Mullen, but on the count of three, she again freezes, watching her partner drop into the water. She starts the count over again on her fingers, "one, two, thr…." She pauses to look back at Berberich, now on the other board, smiling.

She bounces slightly, then decides to back up and take a running start. As she comes to the end of the board, she tries to slow down, but it's too late. She falls over the edge. Splash. She comes up grinning.

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