Sunlight peeking through the curtains woke Coley Boone that Saturday morning. After a quick breakfast, her family piled in the car and headed to her parents’ Fish River home. It’s how they spent most weekends. The day’s unseasonably warm weather called for dipping toes in the water, and a quick jaunt by boat to the nearby sandbar would fit the bill perfectly.
While grown-ups gathered floats, Boone’s 18-month-old daughter, Lucy, danced around the pier, keeping time with the cicadas’ late spring hum. The glint off the lapping water cast an almost dreamlike glow on the toddler’s face. The picture-perfect scene would soon erupt in chaos.
“It’s not like the movies,” Meg Johnson says of drowning. “It’s quiet, it’s fast. There is no thrashing and screaming.” Johnson, a certified Infant Swimming Resource (ISR) instructor and owner of Gulf Coast Swimfants, has spent the last six years informing parents of this stark reality: In the U.S., drowning is the No. 1 unintentional cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 and the second leading cause among children ages 5 to 14. “The reason that it’s so prominent is because there’s not enough awareness,” she says. “I think every parent should know the statistics. Everyone talks about car seats and vaccines, but no one is talking about drowning. Water takes our babies more than anything else.”
To combat these grim statistics, Johnson and husband, Matthew, teach self-rescue skills year-round. “Our goal is to minimize fear and increase confidence,” says Johnson, whose students call her ‘Eg — because that “M” sound can be hard to articulate. “ISR gets a bad rap. People think it’s a controlled drowning, and it’s not. Fear should not be a part of this.”
The ISR program, developed in the ‘60s by psychologist Harvey Barnett, goes beyond traditional swimming lessons. It teaches infants and young children how to survive in water. According to Johnson, lessons are taught slowly and incrementally through sensory motor touch.
“The idea behind it is that children learn how to survive the same way they learn to not touch a hot stove twice,” she explains. “It’s the way children learn best. An instructor’s job is to set up the lesson so that the child understands exactly what is being said through touch. For example, I pick a child up anytime he or she does something that would make them float. It’s like clay; I am shaping their float.”
Lessons last only 10 minutes apiece and are held five days a week for four to six weeks. Children are taught to hold their breath underwater, to roll onto their backs and to float unassisted, all fully clothed.
“By the end of the first week, the child is thinking, ‘I’m good at this!’” Johnson says with a proud smile. “More so than anything, children are learning one of the most valuable lessons in life: It was hard and I was scared, but I stuck in there and now I’m good at it. When you see that in children as young as 18 months old, it’s amazing. I think it shapes their little psyches.”
A Life Saved
That late spring day in 2016, Lucy stepped backward off the pier and fell into the water below. But she didn’t become a statistic.
“By the time I got my hands on her,” recounts Boone, “she was coming to the top of the water and was smiling. She instinctively knew to hold her breath and swim to the surface.”
Meg is proud of her former student. “Parents are giving their children the gift of never knowing the fear of water,” Johnson says, adding, “To be clear, we are proponents of gates and pool locks. This is a final layer of protection. We instructors have the ability to change the statistics in our area, and I think I was created to make an impact in my little corner of the world.”