LeBron James' I Promise School launches swim camp with Olympian Simone Manuel's help

Students of LeBron James' I Promise school line up for swim instruction. The young swimmers began each day with a video message from Olympian Simone Manuel, who visited their school in March to announce the program. Courtesy of the LeBron James Family Foundation

Swimming is not just a sport or a recreational activity -- it's a lifesaving skill that the leadership of LeBron James' I Promise School in Akron, Ohio, wants its students to have. Last week, the school offered its first-ever week-long summer camp, focused on swimming. About 125 of the 140 attendees, who recently finished third and fourth grade, had never been in the water before.

The students began each day with a different video message from Olympian Simone Manuel, who visited their school in March to announce the program. When she won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics for the 100-meter freestyle, she became the first African-American woman to win an Olympic medal in an individual swimming event. She has been working with the USA Swimming Foundation and its Make a Splash campaign to teach kids to swim and to lower the drowning rate.

The statistics are startling. Every day, about two children aged 14 and under die from unintentional drowning in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many children do not know how to swim: 64% of African American, 45% of Hispanic/Latino and 40% of Caucasian children have little to no swimming ability. Manuel points out, adding that "79% of children in households with income less than $50,000 have little to no swimming ability."

"This is extremely important because swimming is a lifesaving skill," Manuel says. "No other sport can really say that. It's awesome that the sport that I do can save their life."

Manuel and her agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, were considering ways to bring swimming into an educational setting, and they thought of the I Promise School. The school aims to enable and empower its kids, and teaching them to swim seemed like a good fit.

The program's inaugural group of young swimmers included only third and fourth graders. All of them were considered low performers academically, at risk of falling further behind their peers, but all were making strides to improve.

"The school year doesn't end when the academic year ends," says Stephanie Myers, director of community partnerships at the LeBron James Family Foundation. "We knew that we needed to continue to wrap around our families and our kids throughout the summer. We want to continue to help close those gaps."

The swim camp was the first of four week-long camps. The others will focus on the National Inventors Hall of Fame, service and revitalizing the community, and a STEM-infused basketball camp at James' alma mater, St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. Many of the school's families lack access to swim programs, Myers says, and sometimes they feel like "that's not for me."

Manuel explains, "It's about bringing swimming into a space where it may not be accessible and allowing those children to learn how to swim and save their lives." Also, "it's really exciting knowing that this is the first time that these children are getting in the pool and playing in the water and getting their first pair of goggles and [maybe] swimsuits," she says. Her sponsor, TYR, gave the children swim gear.

When Manuel visited the school in March, "she was a motivational force. She talked about overcoming some of her adversities and fears when she was a younger swimmer," Myers says. "An Olympic swimmer is standing in front of them, and they can see themselves in her." Manuel's presence showed them "that someone who is not from Akron believes in them," Myers says. "Simone Manuel, the Olympic medalist swimmer, believes in me. She believes I can successfully complete a swim camp and learn how to swim. And, hey, maybe become a swimmer one day, just like her."

The LeBron James Family Foundation facilitated the camp, and the Akron Area YMCA hosted it and provided the instructors. Each day, the kids had an hour in the pool, an hour of leadership skills, and an hour of "We Are Family" time -- which included reflecting on their camp experiences, talking through their feelings, challenges and triumphs, and reading stories about swimming.

The YMCA helped defray the cost to the school, and the school depends on its partners to offer such opportunities, Myers notes. There is no out-of-pocket cost to the families, and the camp also provides breakfast and lunch each day. The attendees made up about 60% of the school's population. After two children in the area had drowning incidents in 2016 -- one survived, and one did not -- the YMCA set out to teach more children to swim, says Brian Bidlingmyer, the Akron Area YMCA's senior vice president of development.

At the swim camp, instructors worked to enable the kids to jump in the pool, get themselves back to the side of the pool, and get out. Then the students were instructed on how to float and catch their breath if they get tired. Instruction also included safety skills like how to call 911 and how to help someone who's in trouble by throwing something to them.

The kids made obvious progress. When they had to jump into deep water, "the first day, we probably had half the kids that were petrified to jump in," Bidlingmyer says. "Just to be able to get them to overcome that fear or that anxiety -- knowing that there's an instructor in the water that's going to catch them and get them back to the side of the pool -- just that sense of accomplishment for those kids was enormous."

Erialle Turner is one of the camp's rising fifth-graders. She had some swimming experience but had never jumped into the deep end. "My favorite part was when we had to jump into 6 feet. [We had to] dive into it and swim, then float on our backs," she says. "I can swim better now. It's gonna be easier -- jump in, and you just start swimming."

"To see the smiles on their faces [near the end of camp] compared to what they were on Monday is just a world of difference," Bidlingmyer says. For the kids who were especially fearful, both the YMCA aquatics team and the I Promise School staff did a great job of building trust and reassuring the kids that they were safe, he says.

One student "had never put his face in the water, and he was very apprehensive," Bidlingmyer says. "[After] 10 or 15 minutes, we finally encouraged him enough to do it, and he went down for a quick second and popped right back up, and the smile on his face! He threw his arm up in the air." Those moments matter, he says -- "to be able to achieve something that they probably never thought that they would be able to achieve."

Another rising fifth-grader, Neveah Jordan, remembers, "The first day of swim camp for me, I was kind of nervous, but then I was excited because I knew that some of my friends were gonna be there."

The kids have formed strong bonds with each other and their teachers in the school's first year, Myers says. The school year ended May 17, and the next one begins on July 29. After being away from each other for two weeks, they missed each other. There was a lot of running, jumping and hugging on the first day of camp, she says. "Unbreakable relationships have been built over the past year."

Linea Wade, the director of the school's summer camps and a teacher there, agrees. "It plays right into our five habits of promise," she says. (The five habits are perspective, perseverance, partner, perpetual learner and problem solver.) For example, the kids learned to be good partners by encouraging each other. They would put an arm around a scared student, she says.

Wade also noticed that some students behaved differently in this new setting, outside of the classroom. "I have seen students who would sometimes have a hard time following instructions and things like that. I have seen those students come in, and they have been so well behaved," she says. "We always compliment our students, but I've been giving so many hugs and 'good jobs.'"

In the videos that the children watched each day, Manuel related her own swimming experience to the five promises and how they have helped her succeed. "One of their promises is perpetual learning. So I talked about, in the context of swimming, a lot of times, I have to continue to want to learn so that I can continue to improve," Manuel says. "So I gave them examples of when I wasn't successful, but I went back and set new goals and learned from those failures to allow myself to be successful the next time around."

"They loved to hear from her," Wade says. "It set the tone for the day."

The ability to swim opens up experiences to kids. For example, "you can go to the beach, you can go to the pool and have a good time. You can take a cruise and feel comfortable in those spaces," Manuel says. "There's so much that comes with swimming, like going to a lake and waterskiing, and knowing that if you fell off the boat, you'd be able to save your life."

Wade points out that physical activity "is really big with our school and with the LeBron James Family Foundation. We make sure the [kids] stay active."

As the students become safer and more comfortable in the water, and build their confidence, they might develop a long-term interest in swimming as a sport.

"I would love to see more minorities in the sport of swimming," Manuel says. "Often, African-American children don't see themselves as swimmers. They see themselves as basketball players or volleyball players or track stars. Introducing the sport of swimming to them not only saves their lives but allows themselves to see the possibility of becoming an Olympic champion like myself. It [could] open the door for a college scholarship in a sport that maybe they didn't feel like was for them."

Allison Torres Burtka is a freelance writer and editor in metro Detroit. You can read more of her work here.