“It’s the strong swimmers who drown.” Did you read that thinking, ‘this can’t possibly be true?’ One would assume that if one is a good swimmer, they would have the know-how to prevent themselves from drowning.

Even though you usually only hear about small children drowning, the facts tell a different story. Many drownings occur among strong swimmers in much different ways than you would think. I wanted to find out how someone with proper swimmer skills could possibly drown.

So, why do good swimmers drown?

  • Swimmers can drown because they are overconfident in their abilities
  • Strong swimmers are less likely to be supervised, which increases their chances of drowning
  • Experienced swimmers are more likely to take risks when involved in water-based activities
  • Open water also poses a variety of dangers that often lead to drowning
  • Specific drowning reasons in the above categories – read below to find out more 

According to the World Health Organization, drowning accounts for 7% of all injury-related deaths. Although swimming lessons are highly recommended for children, the risks of drowning do not disappear.

Overall, engaging in water activities can put even the strongest swimmer at risk. Below we will expand on the outlined reasons why good swimmers can drown.

Overconfidence Can Lead to Drowning

As a trained swimmer, I can attest to the fact that swimmers are proud of their skills. We know every stroke, can perform every turn, and we are super fast. We would never think of drowning as a possibility. 

Even those with minimal swim training can usually swim a few laps around the pool without feeling too tired. The thought doesn’t usually cross their mind that they could be at risk in the presence of water.

Being confident in your abilities is usually a good thing. We want to be proud of what we can do. 

The problem is that the things we are doing don’t always seem risky. The moment we believe we are immune to drowning is when our judgment can become clouded.

These are some of the ways that overconfidence can lead to drowning:

  • Trying to keep up - People who want to fit in (whether it’s a child or an adult) may assume they can keep up with other swimmers. This could lead to a “good” swimmer finding themselves in a position they can’t get out of. Especially if they haven’t learned proper survival skills, such as treading water or rolling over onto their back
  • Swimming Too Long - Let’s make a comparison between running and swimming: with running, you can run as fast as you can until you just can’t go any further, then stop to catch your breath. In swimming, you can’t just stop mid-swim. Just as constant running wears a person out, so does constant swimming. Even if a child is typically a good swimmer, they might not recognize the early signs of when they need to get to safety. By the time they are worn out, they may not have the ability to swim back to the edge of the pool or the shore
  • Shallow Water Blackout - Many swimmers believe they can hold their breath for a long time without any issues. However, holding your breath underwater is very risky and dangerous. No one is immune to the shallow water blackout. Elite swimmer Tate Ramsden drowned while attempting to swim 4 laps without taking a single breath. The problem is, many experienced swimmers do not view this behavior as risky and some even use this type of training regularly.

Underwater Swimming

Though swimming lessons are considered very advantageous, they can still give people a false sense of security. Both children and adults need to know their limits.

Another golden rule is, you should never swim alone, no matter how good of a swimmer you are — more on that below:

Good Swimmers Often Lack Proper Supervision

When a swimmer is considered to have the skills necessary to swim well, most assume they do not need much (or any) supervision. Both unsupervised swimming and swimming with improper supervision can be dangerous.

Swimming Unsupervised

Swimming alone poses obvious risks. But, if you are a seasoned swimmer, you may not think twice about those risks. Overconfidence carries over to the mentality of, “It could never happen to me.” This mentality can be particularly dangerous if there is no one there to save you in the event of an accident.

Nobody plans for an accident. You could hit your head, have a seizure, blackout while swimming underwater… and, if you choose to swim alone, no one will be there to help.

This is similar to sending your child to go swimming without lifeguard supervision. Sure, there may be other people around, but they will not be watching your child.

Low Level of Supervision

On the other hand, a good swimmer doesn’t have to be alone to drown. In fact, busy swim areas can actually pose a greater risk compared to less busy places. In situations like this, people are easily distracted. On top of that, it can be difficult to sight your friend or family member among everyone else who is swimming.

Parents (myself included) can be guilty of allowing their child who swims well, to swim without proper supervision. Yes, you are with them at the pool, but you are not actively watching them the whole time.

You could be sitting right there talking to a friend while your back is turned to your child. You assume your child is not in any danger… you just saw them swimming laps with ease, after all! But children play, and accidents happen.

Children aren’t the only ones we need to watch out for. We may never even think to supervise our adult friends as they swim. Why would we? If they say they can swim, and you see them swimming, you may think you don’t need to keep an eye on them.

But, adults aren’t immune to accidents and any type of drowning situation could happen very quickly. Especially because drowning is usually a very quiet event… generally not the thrashing around we see in the movies. And when people aren’t carefully watched while partaking in risky behavior, the likelihood increases.

“Many people underestimate the risks and overestimate their ability, or that of their children in water…even those with good swimming skills may not be safe due to other factors, such as unfamiliar waters, water hazards, medical emergencies, alcohol or drug use, or other unsafe conditions.” –Water Safety USA 

Strong Swimmers are More Likely to Take Risks

Risk-taking behavior is probably the biggest reason strong swimmers drown. With that being said, it is probably not going to surprise you that nearly 80% of people who die from drowning are male, according to the CDC. This isn’t because females are better swimmers: it’s because boys and men generally take greater physical risks than women.

This study found the presence of drowning was highest in males in their late teens to mid-twenties. This is a time when men are not only trying to prove they can do what their friends are doing, but also an age where alcohol is often heavily consumed.

Some of the risks most often associated with drowning include:

  • Swimming alone
  • Night swimming
  • Boating without wearing a life jacket
  • Swimming in a natural body of water
  • Intoxication

Though all of the examples above contribute to risky swimming behavior, alcohol is responsible for the majority of them. The CDC estimates the use of alcohol is associated with 70% of water recreation deaths. When a good swimmer consumes alcohol, the dangers can be profound.

This is because alcohol:

  • impairs judgment
  • removes inhibitions – causing someone to take a risk they may normally not take
  • leads to poor coordination
  • reduces the rate at which the brain processes information, in turn, decreasing reaction time
  • causes disorientation
  • reduces the effectiveness of CPR

A situation in which a non-impaired, skilled swimmer could escape from, can become fatal under the presence of alcohol. That, combined with open water swimming, is as dangerous as it gets.

“Most drownings happen in environments and during activities unsupervised by lifeguards. And the great majority of drownings occur in circumstances where the victim has no intention of going into the water.” –International Life Saving Federation

Open Water Increases the Possibility for Drowning

Most drownings in the 1-4 year-old age range, usually occur in swimming pools. As age increases, drownings happen more frequently in open water settings. For those 15–35 years, the CDC states more than 57% of the drownings occurred in open water. 

Open water includes environments such as rivers, lakes, and oceans – all of which pose an even more serious risk to both non-swimmers and experienced swimmers. However, a strong swimmer has a much greater chance to avoid drowning in a swimming pool due to a more contained environment.

Here are several other reasons how open water possesses higher risks for drowning:

  • Boating – Often times, recreation takes place in an open water setting like a lake. Activities like boating or jet-skiing can cause accidents or drowning, even when the person has no intention to enter the water
  • No Life Jackets – Good swimmers may choose not to wear a life jacket in open water because they do not feel a current danger. Unfortunately, most boating deaths are caused by drowning, and the vast majority of these victims aren’t wearing life jackets
  • Absence of Lifeguards – In the event of an accident, a lifeguard could potentially rescue a drowning person. Though most pools are monitored by lifeguards, most open water is not 
  • Freezing Temperatures – Even good swimmers undergo “cold shock” when immersed in cold water. This can cause loss of breathing control, muscle spasms, and can make it difficult for even a strong swimmer to save themselves from drowning
  • Currents and Riptides – Earlier, we discussed how good swimmers are often overconfident in their abilities. Here is another example of how this overconfidence could become detrimental. A swimmer may be strong in calm water, however, this doesn’t mean they are equipped with the necessary skills to escape strong currents or riptides

Lake Drownings are Especially Common

It is extremely important to be careful in lake settings because lakes are where most good swimmers tend to drown. Although most of the drowning examples are listed above, here are a few more reasons that are specific to lakes: 

  • Lakes are most commonly used for water recreation – resulting in a higher chance of drowning
  • It is easier to drown in freshwater than in saltwater
  • Lake waters are dark and murky – it harder to spot someone who is drowning
  • Ice on lakes can be thinner than expected, causing someone to fall through and drown
  • Good swimmers are more likely to swim in lakes – thus all the drowning risks mentioned above in this post

Drowning Prevention for Experienced Swimmers

People need to be more aware of the risks associated with good swimmers. We have to recognize that no one is immune to drowning, regardless of their swimming abilities. Simple adjustments can be made to drastically reduce risks. Some of the top ones to note are:

  1. Never swim under the influence of alcohol
  2. Do not hold your breath for an extended period of time
  3. Wear a life jacket when in open water
  4. Never swim at night or alone
  5. Supervise children and keep an eye on the adults in the water

Be sure to look into our other articles On Deck too!

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October 21, 2020 — Roman Trussov


Moulton Avery said:

Kudos on mentioning cold water, although you diluted the message and missed an important point by using the heading “freezing temperatures” and failing to make the well-documented connection between cold shock and swimming failure. See this: www.coldwatersafety.org and watch this: https://vimeo.com/529139413

Michael Jackson said:

Good Advice

Zedic said:

This is great safety advice! Thanks!

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