Too many New Yorkers don't know how to swim, here's how to fix that

1 in 4 NYC kids don't know how to swim, and it's time to change that.

Too many New Yorkers don't know how to swim, here's how to fix that
The flag did not, surprisingly, stop people from swimming. (Via Eric Parker/Flickr)

New York City is surrounded by water; in fact, the water is getting closer all the time. But Shawn Slevin still calls it an “aquatic desert.” 

Slevin, the founder of the Swim Strong Foundation, uses that paradoxical phrase to point out the dangerous contradiction in the city: we’re an archipelago city, defined and shaped by water, but we’re not great at teaching people about it. One in four city kids don’t know how to swim, and as many adults are lagging in basic water safety, too. 

“We don’t have the infrastructure to teach nine million people these skills,” she said. 

New Yorkers see this play out in real time every summer, when headlines are reliably full of tragic drowning incidents: last year a 19-year-old died after getting sucked out in the rip current off Riis Beach. Between 2008 and 2018, 45 people drowned in city pools and beaches — a number that doesn’t include rivers and other waterways. It also doesn’t include people who drowned in their own homes. 

“When Superstorm Sandy hit that gave me a bit of an epiphany,” Slevin told The Groove. “Regardless of how swim-skilled anyone was, there’s not one of us who are exempt from the possibility of a drowning.”

Slevin felt that danger close to home: 13 of her neighbors in Woodside, Queens died in floodwaters from the remnants of Hurricane Ida in 2021. It’s a stark reminder that just six inches of flood water can knock over an adult, and a reminder that everyone needs basic water safety skills these days, even people who never go to the beach. 

But the ongoing lifeguard shortage certainly doesn’t help either: large stretches of the city’s beaches have sat unguarded in recent summers, and, even if the shortage improves this year, those guards can only cover so much beach. No one is guarding the water after hours, when many drownings happen. The disparity is greater for Black and Latinx New Yorkers, who are even less likely to know how to swim, a problem exacerbated by limited access to swimming resources. 

The City Council and other organizations have taken big steps in recent years to improve access to swimming lessons for kids and adults across the city. Mostly, the city needs to reorient its relationship with the water overall: climate change, storms and floods mean the water is coming for you, one way or another. 

“Our children, our grandchildren, our great grandchildren eventually, they will have such a different relationship with the water, you won’t recognize it,” Slevin said. 

Here’s how you and your kids can take advantage of these opportunities to learn, before summer — and swimming season — arrive. 

All-ages lessons

City Parks and Recreation Centers 
The good news: swimming lessons are free to kids and adults if you have a membership to a Rec Center. (Memberships are $150 a year for adults and are a decent value for access to these public fitness facilities around the city; I had one last year and got access to a weight room, pool, billiard room and treadmills when it was too gross to run outside, and made a new friend who only wanted to talk about the ’86 Mets in the weight room). 

The bad news: the lessons for the spring session start March 30, and registration is almost closed, so you’ll have to wait until the summer session to apply, and those dates haven't been posted yet. You have to apply through a lottery system for the spots (see, this is what we’re talking about here, not enough swimming lessons to go around). Keep your eye on this page for the announcements of the summer and fall sessions. 


One-day swimming classes range from $200 for members to $318 for non-members. That’s a lot more than some of these other options, but the plus side is the Y has locations all over the city. Find more info here. 

Swim Strong Foundation 
Swim Strong has given swimming lessons to more than 10,000 people in its 17-year history. Lessons happen at high schools in Far Rockaway, Jamaica, Bushwick and Midwood, with one-hour classes starting at $360. See the full listings here

Swim Strong also produces a Know Before You Go safety seminar at schools around the city (an assembly, if you will) that covers the pre-swimming basics: drowning facts and tips, the dangers of different waterways, how storms can create water hazards and more. Parents can contact their school principals to ask for participation. 

A non-wonk’s guide to the State of the State address: more pools, fewer fare evasion tickets
We pulled the 12 most important things you need to know from Gov. Hochul’s big speech this week.

For kids only

First Strokes 
First Strokes is a student-teaching-student system of free lessons at several locations around Manhattan. It’s available at Seward Park High School in the Lower East Side and John Jay High School in Park Slope. One-hour lessons are generally held once a week; find out all the info for getting the students in your life into the water here

Learn to Swim program
This opt-in program for young kids started a few years back, and offers free lessons to second graders. The City Council only approved the program in 2023, but it already was imperiled by Eric Adams’s budget cuts, until a donor stepped in to save it. Check with your kid’s school to see how to take advantage. 

For adults only 

Swim Easy New York 
Swim Easy is an adult-focused swim school with two locations, with classes starting for as little as $70. Lessons are available at two locations: St. Bart’s Pool in Midtown, and Leman Pool in the Financial District. A private lesson costs $150, and a pack of eight classes runs $480. Book here

A new idea: Seize the fancy pools  

Infrastructure is for sure part of the problem: public pools in the city are only open in the summer, and open-water swimming in the ocean isn’t the ideal place to learn the ropes for the first time.

Slevin has her eyes on a possible solution. It seems like every new construction around the city bandies around the word “luxury” as if it were an inviting term, and not an omen of unaffordable gentrification in process. Many of those buildings tout amenities that its residents might not actually use — including pools. 

The pools might provide a more widespread option for swimming lessons — if building managers would play ball 

“It's certainly here, it’s staring you in the face,” she said. 

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