UMATILLA COUNTY — A youth spent swimming saved Pendleton Parks and Recreation Director Liam Hughes’ life.
When he was 10 years old, Hughes and his family went on a vacation to a campground near Biarritz, France, a resort town on the country’s southwestern coast.
On the first night there, Hughes and his father went on a bike ride on the coast before deciding to take an unplanned swim in the ocean.
But to the two travelers, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.
“The sun was close to setting but it was a warm night and the ocean just looked (too) inviting not to go for a swim,” he wrote in an email.
The tide soon pulled Hughes away from shore, and although his dad was still able to stand up, Hughes was disoriented as he was repeatedly “enveloped in a wall of foamy salt water.”
Luckily for Hughes, he grew up swimming in a local river in his native England and practiced four times per week as a part of a swim team.
Hughes swam as hard as he could back toward the shore, using the crashing waves to boost him, and his father was eventually able to help get him out of the ocean.
Hughes shared this story to demonstrate that swimming ability isn’t just for leisure, but also a vital survival tool. In a region where lakes, rivers and creeks are bountiful, people never quite know when they’re going to be in the water.
He pointed to the drowning of a 35-year-old Umatilla man on the Columbia River in 2018. While fishing, his son fell into the river. Neither knew how to swim, and although the boy was saved, the father drowned.
Both the cities of Pendleton and Hermiston are interested in educating the public about safe swimming practices. Because even in the relatively controlled environment of a municipal aquatic center, both the cities of Pendleton and Hermiston are discovering a lack of both knowledge and ability.
Hermiston Recreation Coordinator Kasia Robbins said the Hermiston Family Aquatic Center employs 60 lifeguards to monitor its various pools, waterslides and diving boards.
Robbins said some parents are over-reliant on lifeguards to watch their children, leading to several situations per day where lifeguards need to jump into the pool for a save or assist.
“They’re a line of defense, but they’re not the only line of defense,” she said.
Robbins said life jackets are also sometimes used as a substitute for close supervision. While life jackets are important for keeping a child afloat, she said they can often flip a child onto their stomach rather than their back if they go unmonitored.
Robbins said adults often overestimate their child’s swimming ability, so Hermiston is revamping their swimming program accordingly.
Instead of telling parents that their children are capable of “flutter kicks” and “free arms,” aquatic center staff are reporting whether their child is at a low, medium or high risk of drowning.
Pendleton is also interested in drowning prevention, and is planning to launch a public outreach campaign in the spring.
Hughes said the campaign will include social media and radio ads, but the goal isn’t just to increase traffic at the Pendleton Aquatic Center, but to encourage swimming lessons wherever they may be.
He said there’s even talk between Pendleton and Hermiston about collaborating. Robbins said Hermiston is interested in filming a public service announcement with Pendleton.
As one of the people who oversees the Pendleton Aquatic Center, Hughes echoed many of the same concerns Robbins did.
He said the ultimate goal of the campaign would be to have all children learn to swim at the same time they learn to walk and to dispel the public of the notion that just because it’s a public pool means it’s a safe environment.
“We have all seen the Facebook posts of people trying to pet polar bears at the zoo and getting attacked. People wouldn’t approach a polar bear in the wild, but because it is in a zoo they think it’s safe. The problem is that (the) polar bear has not ceased to be a polar bear just because you put it in the zoo,” he wrote.
“The same is true for pools. Parents are cautious letting their kids play in a lake that is 6-foot deep, but don’t think twice about letting them in a 6-foot-deep swimming pool. The water did not become less dangerous because we brought it into a public pool. Anytime we are around water it deserves our respect and attention.”