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All ages getting free swimming lessons at event on Lake Lanier
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Devin Horan, part-owner at Swim Gainesville, leads children in a series of exercises during an open water swim series at Clarks Bridge Park in Gainesville on Saturday, July 20, 2019. The goal of the event is to educate the public on water safety using games and activities. - photo by Austin Steele

Amanda McMillion stood on the bank of Lake Lanier at Clarks Bridge Park Saturday, June 20, watching her son, Everett, 4, in the lake taking swimming lessons. She said it’s the first year he hasn’t been scared of water, so she’s trying to get him in as many water activities as possible to make sure that fear never comes back.

“I grew up on Lake Lanier, so I want to make sure my kid knows how to navigate lake water as well as pool water,” McMillion said. “Because it’s very different. There’s tides, there's waves, there’s things that you don’t see underneath that you can get caught on and that's a concern for me as a parent, because I want to make sure he’s going to be safe no matter what we’re doing.”

That’s why the McMillions were at the park with other families taking part in Swim Gainesville’s second free open-water swim series of the summer. The organization has one more scheduled for 8 to 10 a.m. Aug. 17.

Joy Kelleher, founder of Swim Gainesville, said she’s trying to “counter some of the problems we experience and negative aspects of living on the lake.”

Lake Lanier has seen eight drownings so far this year and Kelleher is hoping to reduce that number as much as possible for the future.

“People presume, ‘OK, my child can swim in the pool, I swim in the pool, therefore they’re safe in the water,’” Kelleher said. “That’s not necessarily the case, because it’s murky and there’s different texture on the bottom. So there are a lot more elements to consider in a lake than there is in a pool. People think that the ability generalizes automatically, and that’s not how kids’ brains work.”

She said while it’s important children practice water safety in pools, they also need to practice in the lake, otherwise they may not know what to do when they step on or brush up on something unfamiliar they can’t see underwater.

When it comes to teaching adults, Kelleher said teaching techniques are the same, but they have to “focus on the baggage an adult brings.”

“They’re probably carrying some guilt or shame or there was a reason they didn’t learn how to swim,” Kelleher said. “They have some sort of negative connotation to it already, so we have to re-program that. We have to teach them how to relax themselves in the water, how to ground themselves in the water and not to panic, because that's what gets you in trouble.”

Joanna Perez, 24, was there with her brother, Jace Helton, 9. They were both getting swimming lessons for the first time.

“Water is dangerous in general for young kids, and the fact that he didn't know how to swim and I didn't know how to swim either really worried me a lot,” Perez said. “Being able to give him that security and confidence in water made me feel better and made him feel better, too.”

She said even though they didn’t know how to swim, they’d gone to rivers and lakes in the past, but knew their limitations. They had to stay in the shallow end and make sure someone who did know how to swim was always around.

Now, with these lessons and others they plan to take in the future, they'll have that security and confidence they were looking for.

“I think he did awesome and learned a lot,” Perez said of her brother. “I learned a lot, too.”

With the turnout Kelleher has seen at the past two lessons, she’s hopeful for the next. She said she’s planning on doing more free lessons throughout the year and even starting earlier next summer.

“We have this great natural resource, but it claims lives,” Kelleher said. “So we need to all, as a community, pull together and be responsible and make sure that every one of our citizens has the basic skills of water safety and knows how to appropriately use this great natural resource of Gainesville.”


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Nevan Robinson, 7, left, from Gainesville, and Nova Baker, 7, right, make their way back to the shore as a part of an activity during an open water swim series at Clarks Bridge Park in Gainesville on Saturday, July 20, 2019. The goal of the event is to educate the public on water safety using games and activities. - photo by Austin Steele
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Nathan Rhoads, head swim coach at Brenau University, right, high-fives Joanna Perez, left, during an open water swim series at Clarks Bridge Park in Gainesville on Saturday, July 20, 2019. - photo by Austin Steele
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