Olivia Nichols took a hesitant breath and squinted. The corners of her mouth turned down into a frown, then up into a smile, then down again.
“I can do this. I- can- do- this,” the eight-year-old half-whispered the mantra a half-dozen times, before plunging her face partly down into the water and blowing bubbles. Her classmates from Luxford Elementary School launched into a fit of giggles and squeals.
Nichols proudly wrapped her arms around herself in a self-affirming hug.
“I did it!”
Nichols is one of 250 second-graders learning how to swim at Williams Farm Recreation Center this month thanks to a new pilot program called Students on the Swim (SOS). Formed through a partnership between Virginia Beach City Public Schools and the Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation department, SOS was designed as a two-week program to introduce basic swimming skills through 10 American Red Cross certified swimming classes. Second-graders from Newtown Elementary School also will participate in the program.
SOS has been a long time in the making. For six years, Virginia Beach City Councilwoman Rosemary Wilson has envisioned a free swimming program for VBCPS students. With 400 lakes in Virginia Beach, plus the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean and neighborhood swimming pools, she said, water is simply a way of life and not knowing how to swim can be a deadly mistake.
According to the American Red Cross, fatal drowning remains the second-leading cause of unintentional, injury-related death among children ages one-14.
Wilson was nearly one of those statistics when at four she fell into a lake. Today she is passionate about making sure that all children, no matter their family’s financial ability, have the means by which to take swimming lessons. She partnered with VBCPS Deputy Superintendent Sheila Magula, and together they brought SOS to fruition. Sponsorship funding by Acoustical Sheetmetal, Inc., made starting the program with two Title I schools (Luxford and Newtown) a reality.
“Learning to swim is the great equalizer,” said Dr. Petra Snowden of Acoustical Sheetmetal Inc. “I see this as a gift that keeps on giving.”
“We will never know how many lives we will save with this program,” she said. “Once they have learned this skill they will carry it with them for a lifetime.”
While SOS is starting out small, additional sponsorships would enable the program to grow exponentially over the next few school years.
And that is good news to seven-year-old Zoie Squire. Timid around the water at first, Squire said she now cannot wait until summer time.
“I want to go to the water park, and to the pool and to the beach,” Squire said. “Who knew swimming could be so much fun?”