In 2017, there were 12 boating fatalities and 23 non-boating drownings in Minnesota, according to the Department of Natural Resources. Statistics like this make it critical for all of us to know how to swim. Jon Foss has personally taught more than 50,000 lessons, and “I want to make sure they are the best,” he says, hoping he can do his part to get these numbers down.
From bathing to sailing to that feeling of weightlessness found between the waves—our species is drawn toward water. “Humans are designed to swim,” says Foss, CEO and founder of Foss Swim School. “We have like 30 different adaptations that allow us to swim—our unusual nose, our body fat layer, our specialized shoulders … these are totally unexplained by science.” But as much as water is a delight to the mind and body, it can also pose a threat. For those who don't know how to swim, “drowning is a real danger,” Foss explains.
“I think swimming was more important to my family than the average family,” Foss says. While his mother was babysitting her brother, tragedy struck, and her sibling drowned. The memory of that loss helped inspire Foss’ dedication to swimming, which he began at age 5, and, in 1972, “I saw [nine-time U.S. Olympic champion] Mark Spitz win seven gold medals,” he says.
These experiences in his youth encouraged Foss to continue the sport through college while attending St. Olaf College, Northfield. “I was all-American in college,” he says. Foss went on to volunteer as a coach in Minneapolis and, even to this day, “I still swim every day,” he says. “Swimming is something I truly enjoy.”
With a combination of his love of the sport and a desire to share the gift of swimming, Foss created Foss Swim School. The longtime swimmer, swim coach and former member of the Minnesota Drowning Prevention Task Force, started the school in 1993 with 12 students and “a few principles,” he says. The belief that every child should learn to swim—and swim well—was at the forefront of the mission.
Independent lessons begin at age 3 at the school, with parent-child classes offered even earlier. Foss explains the importance of exposing children to water. “The window to learn to swim well starts to close at age 6,” he says. Foss stresses parents should be aware that drowning is a silent event. “If a child looks up [while drowning] they will start to sink,” he says. “They won’t call or scream.” Foss also stresses the danger of floaties as a stand in for teaching children to swim. “You have to be very careful with floaties,” he says. “If used correctly to teach kids, they can be great, but they can also give kids a false sense of security.”
Learning to swim has other benefits. “There’s a book [entitled] 52 Ways to Build Self Esteem and Confidence, and learning to swim is number six,” says Foss. “It’s empowering.” And with multiple Foss Swim Schools across Minnesota and Illinois, he hopes to pass this empowerment on, one lesson at a time.
Tips to help stay safe around water from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Designate a responsible adult to watch young children while they are in the bath and all children swimming or playing in or around water. Drowning occurs quickly and quietly, so adults should not be involved in any other distracting activity.
- Swim with a buddy.
- Select swimming venues that have lifeguards.
- Learn to swim. (Formal swimming lessons reduces the risk of drowning among children aged 1 to 4 years.)
- Don’t use air-filled or foam toys (water wings, noodles or inner-tubes) in place of life jackets.
- Use U.S. Coast Guard approved life jackets.
- Avoid drinking alcohol before or during swimming, boating, water skiing or supervising children.
- Don’t let swimmers try to hold their breath for long periods of time.
- Be aware of weather conditions (wind, tides, lightning, etc.).
- Install a four-sided pool fence that completely separates a pool area from the house and yard.
- After swim time, rid pools and decks of toys, so children are not tempted to enter the pool area unsupervised.