Staff photo — Jerry Larson
Krystal Shoults keeps an eye on children as they play in the
outdoor pool at the Waco Family YMCA on Harvey Drive.
Staff photo — Jerry Larson
Ethan Blanton keeps a watchful eye on children as they swim and
play in the outdoor pool at the Waco Family YMCA on Harvey
Staff photo — Jerry Larson
Eric Reese watches over the indoor pool at the Waco Family YMCA
on Harvey Drive.
Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file
Recent flooding has closed most Lake Waco parks, and water
levels remain high, making swimming and boating riskier for people
who still choose to use the lake.
Staff photo — Jerry Larson, file
Waco firefighters carry a man from Lake Waco in December after
his kayak flipped near Midway Park and he called for help,
apparently suffering from hypothermia, officials said.
As the weather warms up and Texans turn to the water for relief, those who work in drowning prevention hope previous years’ painful lessons will sink in.
Lifeguards, park rangers and parents alike are preparing themselves to spring into action to rescue someone from drowning if needed.
Unintentional drowning was a top-10 leading cause of death in every age group up to 54 years old in 2017 and the most common cause among 1- through 4-year-olds, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. Texas has had consistently high drowning rates over the years, and Central Texas seems especially vulnerable, said Christine Reeves, executive director of the Heart of Texas Regional Advisory Council, which tracks drowning deaths.
Three children drowned in McLennan County in 2016, six drowned in 2017, and five drowned in the county last year, according to the council’s data.
YMCA Aquatic Director Evan Bates, who said he has been swimming his entire life, still remembers an incident from his junior year of high school. During a swim meet when he was 16, a competitor dove from the starting block and landed on top of another swimmer. Bates, from the next lane over, quickly called for a backboard.
“We didn’t jump in,” Bates said. “We got into the water gently and back-boarded both kids.”
When there is a risk of spinal injuries, lifeguards approach as gently as they can, trying not to make waves that could move the injured person and cause more harm. One swimmer made it out with bruises and the other had a mild concussion, but the incident stuck with him, Bates said. They were both strong swimmers, just warming up before a competition.
“Even with a competitive swimmer, if you aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing, you can get hurt very quickly,” Bates said.
Summer is a busy time for the YMCA. 45 students have come through the Y’s lifeguard training this year, and the organization will hold more than 1,000 group swimming lessons before summer is over. The YMCA’s urban swim initiative accounts for another 300 to 400 young students.
Bates said he grew up in West Texas, and most high schools had a swim team. He said when he moved to Waco, he noticed a difference immediately.
“We got here, and there was one high school team and one club team,” he said. “Moving here, I was like ‘where is all of the swimming?’”
He said many members of some families do not know how to swim, and the lack of experience carries over to children.
“It is kind of a recurring generation thing,” Bates said. “The parents are terrified, the grandparents, sometimes even the great-grandparents.”
Even basic swimming lessons or pool safety courses that teach participants how to float and tread water can make all the difference when it comes to preventing tragedy, he said.
Lifeguards are trained to recognize the signs of a swimmer in distress, but the tells might not be obvious to the untrained eye. Swimmers at the point of exhaustion often panic and move to a vertical position in the water and continue to tire themselves out by pushing with their arms, rather than moving to a relaxed near-horizontal floating position on their back that can keep their head above water with minimal effort.
A panicked swimmer struggling to stay up generally will not be able to call out for help.
“You have as little as 20 seconds from the time that you see that to be able to get to them before they potentially go under,” Bates said. “It’s a very silent emergency. It’s not what you see in the movies.”
Even in a relatively safe water park environment monitored by lifeguards, parents and chaperones need to stay vigilant, said Justin Litton, director of the Hawaiian Falls Waco water park.
“We’re here to assist,” Litton said. “Just because we have lifeguards, don’t neglect the fact your kids are in the water.”
Hawaiian Falls lifeguards are trained to focus on unattended children for that exact reason, he said. Most close calls at the park happen between 1 and 4 p.m., when guests have been running around for several hours and might be more fatigued or dehydrated than they realize.
“Kids are going to be kids,” Litton said. “We’ve all been there. People get tired, they don’t realize it and they wind up in a bad situation.”
While lifeguards are also trained to deal with the frenetic, loud crowds, it is the quiet signs of a drowning person that they look for. Litton said people who are drowning sometimes look like they are climbing an invisible ladder as they do everything they can to stay above water. Eventually, the “climbing” subsides as they become more exhausted.
“We end up assisting a lot of guests,” Litton said.
The park participates in an annual World’s Largest Swimming Lesson event on June 20, when kids can learn basic swimming skills for free. Communicating with kids, teaching them to pay attention to the depth of the water and making weaker swimmers wear life jackets can make a major difference for their safety.
While pools often have clearly labeled depths, clear water and lifeguards, open water is a different story. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers park ranger Mike Champagne said he has seen his fair share of drownings, and when it comes to water safety, open water like Lake Waco can pose dangers guests might not think about. Out on the lake, everyone needs to wear a life jacket, even strong swimmers, Champagne said.
“It’s not like a pool or a beach,” he said. “It requires so much time and effort to keep your body afloat.”
Lake Waco remains more than 10 feet higher than normal because of recent rains, meaning hidden hazards present more of a risk than usual. Murky water can hide everything from trees and limbs to picnic tables, all of which could cause a boat to crash or snag an unaware swimmer by the ankle, he said.
“There’s a lot of things that weren’t underwater that are now,” Champagne said. “If someone is going really fast and hits something like that, they could damage the boat or be ejected from it.”
Lake Waco has no lifeguards, and many drowning incidents at the lake involve alcohol, he said. However, this Memorial Day weekend should be fairly uneventful because all the lake’s designated swimming areas and boat ramps are closed. That does not always stop people from swimming in undesignated areas that have not been checked for safety.
“An area designated as ‘safe’ has been inspected,” Champagne said. “That way you know it’s not going to just drop off 20 feet suddenly. That doesn’t mean people aren’t allowed to swim. People swim where they want to swim.”
He said in his experience, most drownings are the result of boating accidents or happen in undesignated swimming areas. Reckless teenage behavior accounts for a fair number as well, he said.
“There’s a lot of kids who say they’ve never swam before, you’ve got those that are strong swimmers, but the hardest part for most people is to admit they’re not a strong swimmer,” Champagne said.