Lifeguard-turned-Miami Dolphins guard schooling Florida's youth on water safety

Dolphins guard Solomon Kindley is hosting a free seven-week swim and water safety program to be held at Charles Hadley Park in Miami. Courtesy Dirty Lenz Media Group/Solomon Kindley

MIAMI -- Miami Dolphins guard Solomon Kindley has held the nickname "Big Fish" since he was a small kid, but he truly earned the moniker during the summer of 2016 while visiting Georgia Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart's lake house.

Smart hosted a group of freshman players for some fun in the water following summer workouts. Bulldogs running back Brian Herrien, who could not swim, wore a life jacket and camped out in the shallow end, but once Kindley and his teammates decided to take out the boat, he didn't want to be left behind and asked to join.

The players began throwing the football around and taking turns hanging on the float tied to the back of the boat. Herrien accidentally let go of the float, and he flew into the middle of the lake as the boat drove away. Kindley, a high school lifeguard, stepped into action.

"He was panicking and splashing and splashing. So I jumped in to save him and held him there until the boat came to pick us up," Kindley said. "The crazy part is his head was above the water the whole time, so he wasn't really drowning, but he was panicking. When I got to him, we both started laughing. We talk about it every time I see him, and it became a joke around the team."

Kindley, a 6-foot-4, 335-pound guard who is entering his second season with the Dolphins, says he's the NFL's fastest swimmer and figures people reading this won't believe it when they see him. He has always been a big kid, and he remembers what happened in grade school when he participated in swim races in his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida. While getting into the pool and when swimming, he would hear parents laughing and making snide comments about him.

"I've been doubted my whole life when I got in the pool because of my size," Kindley said. "I remember people whispering about what I was doing in here. They asked if I was a lifeguard or a dad. I was a young kid. Then I got in the water and smoked everybody in my race group."

It's no surprise that Kindley is using the pool as his way to give back to Florida youth. In June, Kindley began a partnership with the Progressive Firefighters Association to help roughly 500 Miami-area kids learn how to swim and water safety, and to help older kids learn how to become lifeguards through donations from the Children's Trust. It's a free seven-week program held at Charles Hadley Park in Miami. The program is open to anyone, but there is a particular focus on helping Black kids erase the stigma that they can't swim.

When Kindley began thinking of starting his own swim camp, the Dolphins' public relations team suggested he partner with the Progressive Firefighters, a group of current and retired African American firefighters who volunteer their time to run a program in the Miami area. Kindley and his agent, Toney Scott, quickly jumped at the idea.

Keith Bell, a Miami Fire Department chief and president of the Progressive Firefighters Association, described the program's goal as "wanting to drown-proof our community."

Kindley remembers his first swimming "lesson." He and his brothers used to sneak out of the house and go to the local community pool while their mom was at work, and one day they were thrown in the 12-foot deep section of the pool by an older man who felt the kids' fight-or-flight instincts would force them to swim. Bell, who is a Black man, says he learned to swim in a similar fashion.

"About 80% of my teammates, whether in high school, college or the pros, can't swim," Kindley said. "When I was a lifeguard -- I worked with younger kids -- I would give them advice to learn it at a younger age when you listen and respect your parent, or whoever is teaching you. As you get older, you have more fear and it becomes harder.

"Water can be very fun. Water can be very dangerous. [Through this program], those kids are going to learn CPR, first aid, learning how to swim if they don't know and getting lifeguard certification. It'll give them the lead over the world from something simple like a swim class."

According to the Florida Department of Health, from 2017 to 2019, Florida had the highest unintentional drowning death rate in the country among children 0 to 9 years of age, 3.28 per 100,000 population. The rate nearly doubled, to 6.29 per 100,000 population, for children 1 to 4 years old, also the highest in the U.S. The number of children under the age of 5 lost annually to drowning in Florida (67 in 2017, 74 in 2018, 50 in 2019) would fill three or four preschool classrooms.

"Swimming is not just another sport. Swimming is a lifesaving tool," Bell said. "We volunteer our time because we want to stop kids from drowning. Eventually, we want to build swim leagues and have the inner city compete against each other."

Kindley says he'd love to be there for those future races. The former Georgia standout from Jacksonville says it's a no-brainer for him to make a splash in both of his Florida communities, including in his hometown where he hosted a youth football camp last month.

Later this month, Kindley will head to Dolphins training camp to begin an on-field competition with veteran Jesse Davis for the starting left guard spot. But in the front of his mind is a swimming competition he recently lost to Bell's son, who beat him during a race on the first day of the swim program.

Kindley brags that he has smoked several Dolphins teammates in pool races, players such as quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, guard Robert Hunt and offensive tackles Austin Jackson and Jonathan Hubbard, but he might have found a new rival.

"I'm going to get some training and I'm coming for him," Kindley said with a smile. "I swim really fast like a fish, but I can admit when I get beat."