Eight-year-old Davion Chatman does a handstand in about three feet of water in the Fairground Pool one recent afternoon. Nearby, his brother, Chris Chatman, 13, rolls himself into a ball and does somersaults.
“Hey, watch me,” calls DiMarco Martin, 13, who’s standing in chin-high water. He dives straight to the bottom and touches the pool floor.
At a glance, these kids look like they’re as comfortable in water as, say, Flipper, Shamu, maybe even Michael Phelps. But throw them in the other end of the pool, Joshua Beeks said, and who knows what would happen.
“They probably can’t — what we say — swim in deep water,” said Beeks, area manager for the City of St. Louis Recreation Division. “If they can swim, they would go down to the deep water because it allows them to show off a little bit.”
A recent study commissioned by USA Swimming and conducted by the University of Memphis found that nearly 68.9 percent of African-American children have low or no ability to swim. That’s compared to about 40 percent of white kids.
What’s more, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fatal and nonfatal drowning rates are disproportionately higher in minority populations.
Fairground Pool, near Grand and Natural Bridge Avenue, holds a scant 15 children on this broiling summer day. All of them are African-American. Only three are swimming in the deep end, and they earned their way there by proving to the lifeguard that they could swim from one side of the pool to the other.
Beeks estimates that about 100 children from the predominantly black neighborhood would come to the pool each day during summers past, when admission was free. Now, admission is $1 for children and $2 for adults and attendance has dropped.
“But even then, 75 percent would be in the shallow end,” he said.
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