It is a vital skill that many people learn in their youth, which will not only prevent them from drowning but will also improve strength, flexibly, lung capacity and mental health.
Despite this a worrying number of both children and adults in the UK still cannot swim and the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) is urging policy makers to act.
Chairman of the ASA Group Board, Edward Lord, says: “It’s actually the best sport in terms of health and fitness. It is also a life skill that means you are safe around water, so there are many reasons why it is good and right for people to swim regularly.”
That is why the organisation has this week launched its
Manifesto for Aquatics 2015, setting out its aims to help get the nation back in to the water.
Top of the agenda is simply to increase the number of people learning to swim.
Currently, only 55% of children can swim 25m by Key Stage 2 despite the sport being on the national curriculum.
The ASA is calling for local and central government to introduce a minimum target of 60% by April 2017 and would like to see a more ambitious public health aim of 100% by the end of the decade.
Mr Lord considers improving access to swimming pools for young people and closer inspection of swimming lessons in the Ofsted assessment of schools to be central to meeting this goal.
He hopes that by supporting children this will bolster the numbers of adult swimmers, which is also a concern for the organisation.
In England 21% of adults still cannot swim and the causes are complex.
According to Mr Lord: “There are a number of reasons why those adults aren’t necessarily swimming. Some of them may not have learned to swim when they were kids. When we actually look at the detailed statistics one of the most worrying age groups are the 50 upwards, so that I think is something we are particularly concerned about.
“It might be that they did learn to swim but have simply lost confidence in and around water. It might be that they have body confidence issues and have just gone: ‘I don’t want to go anywhere near a swimming pool.’ It might well be cultural, it might well be that they come from a community where swimming isn’t part of the cultural norm. So, there are a whole range of reasons why people can’t swim.”
Regular trips to the local pool can dramatically enhance health and wellbeing, which is why the ASA alongside Sport England is pushing to ensure that over 3 million people swim for at least 30 minutes every week.
Government can assist in this, Mr Lord says, through ensuring access to sports facilities.
He advocates a proactive approach of “making sure the facilities are there and that they are good quality”.
He says: “At a time of austerity when local authorities are looking to make cuts we want them to either not close swimming pools, or when they do close them, ensure there is some replacement facility in the area.
“New facilities encourage people to come along and swim. If you are a borough that is about to close two swimming pools, we’d encourage them to open a new one as a replacement.
“It is inevitable that some pools will close. They close because they are deemed to be old and too expensive to run and local authorities, if they are looking to make savings, will use that as a potential saving.
“However, we want local authorities to realise that swimming is important and can contribute to the delivery of a wide range of policy objectives including health, social and leisure. What they can do, therefore, is to build new stock that is a lot more flexible and energy efficient. That would encourage more people to come through the doors.”
Increasing participation also requires high-profile ambassadors for the sport. The Olympics successfully delivered in this area, but Mr Lord would like to see that progress sustained through better funding.
“High profile home events such as the London Olympics and Glasgow Commonwealth Games are certainly important. The London Aquatics Centre, which is where we launched our Manifesto, has been a massive success. When we talk about the Olympic legacy, this is the Olympic legacy writ large. They had a target of getting 800,000 people swimming in the first three years and they had 700,000 people in the first year alone. So, this is a great example of where the legacy from major events has a dramatic impact on getting people swimming or involved in other aquatic sports such as diving, synchronised swimming or water polo.
“Winning medals is also important because it provides role models for younger athletes. But due to the way sport is funded in this country, we don’t necessarily have the right funding to get athletes from all the aquatic disciplines up to that Olympic level.
“While we have a number of great English athletes that produced good performances last year at the Commonwealth Games and the European Championships, elite funding is focused on swimming and diving. Team sports such as water polo and synchronised swimming miss out because they are no longer funded by UK Sport. That means there is a gap at the top level and is why we are calling on government to ensure all aquatic disciplines enjoy a financially stable performance pathway in order to help promote the grass roots level.”
Does the ASA Chairman practice what he preaches and regularly takes to the water? “I do, yes,” he replies. “As often as I can usually on the roof of Shoreditch House. I try to swim at least once a week.”
With the election approaching, he is hoping that the new Government will also take the plunge and champion the nation’s swimming needs.