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"Right place at the right time": Practicing water safety in Santa Barbara's many swim spots

los banos del mar pool santa barbara
Christina McDermott
Los Baños del Mar Pool in Santa Barbara.

It’s 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday, and a faint breeze blows off the harbor, shaking the palm trees around Los Baños del Mar pool in downtown Santa Barbara. Kids are grabbing their swim gear from the pool’s edge — kickboards, fins and snorkels — and securing the gear in mesh bags. Behind them, adults are chatting: parents picking up swim kids and master swimmers stretching for their evening session.

The seven-lane and 50-meter pool gets a lot of use. The Central Coast has a strong water culture — now just swimming, but also water polo, kayaking, surfing and more.

There’s a lot to do on and in the water — if you know how to swim.

One person who knows this well is Nancy Schley. She has nearly 20 years of coaching experience and currently coaches age group swimmers at Santa Barbara Swim Club.

She said there's a lot to gain from learning how to swim.

"You’re actually teaching somebody a lifelong skill that they can use forever no matter what age, and a lot of different reasons for it: One, for safety. You’re giving the gift of a lifetime, and that would be safety in the water," she said.

Schley said once someone can swim, a whole world opens up.

"If they become swimmers proficient enough to where they’re drown-proofed, they have a plethora of activities they can do with aquatics, especially living here in Santa Barbara."

As for swim teams, Schley said they keep kids healthy and make them stronger, safer swimmers. She said they also develop life skills.

"For making friends, for learning how to be on a team, how to get along with others, how to set goals — short term goals, long term goals — and every single thing that I probably just mentioned on that list is something we all need no matter how old we are," she said.

Schley said to swim on a team is to learn about accountability, and that swimming has taught her about continued hard work.

"I think one thing that I got out of swimming myself, and I try to instill in others, is that there are no shortcuts. It is what it is. There’s not a judge telling you you got a nine out of nine. It’s not like that."

"It’s you and the clock, you and your teammates and you and the person next to you, perhaps. It’s a team sport but it’s also an individual sport… it teaches life skills in that way," Schley said.

It’s not just kids who swim, or should swim. At the Montecito YMCA, swimmers of all ages enjoy the water. Dwayne Turner has worked as a lifeguard here for a decade, and said he finds a lot of value in his job.

YMCA Montecito pool
Christina McDermott
The Montecito YMCA's swimming pool.

"The fact that I get to see a whole bunch of folks out here, regardless of their abilities, swimming, which means getting a lot of exercise, which is what swimming is really about," he said.

Research shows that swimming is great for your body. It reduces blood pressure, decreases arterial stiffness and improves circulation. In other words, it’s soft on your joints and keeps you mobile.

This can all be done even without a pool. Cold water immersion, the kind of thing you get swimming in the ocean here, or in lakes, has been shown to boost metabolic rate and dopamine production. It significantly reduces pain and increases mood.

Of course, open water swimming is a little different than swimming in a controlled environment like the YMCA.

Ingrid Schmitz teaches ocean swimming at Santa Barbara City College.

"Every day is different when you get in the ocean," she said, "and so breathing becomes very different because you’re dealing with the swell and the chops and the currents as well."

"I like the communal aspect of communing with nature. You know, being out with marine life, being out in the water where there’s a lot of movement, the swell, the wind, the pelicans diving down, the view. A lot of people don’t see the view of Santa Barbara from the water."

Schmitz' swim courses are open to all ages. Her Fall class meets twice weekly, while her summer course runs five days a week, two hours a day.

"It’s pretty intensive, but we improve very quickly — so quickly that we actually attempt a 5k [race] halfway through the class, and we attempt a 10k at the end of the class with feeding stations," she said.

To keep everyone safe, Schmitz ensures there are two lifeguards in the water with the group, and at least one on the beach. Everyone wears bright swim caps, too. Being visible, and swimming with a buddy, is important. Finally, Schmitz subscribes to the ‘too’ rule.

"If you’re too tired, too cold, too hungry, too freaked, too anything, get out," she said.

Swimming, after all, can be dangerous. Santa Barbara Swim Coach Schley has rescued multiple swimmers from drowning deaths.

"I know three of them have been out of rivers. One of them was at a campground. The parents were kind of socializing in one area and didn’t realize what was going on. Their kid fell in, and I just happened to be at the right place at the right time," Schley said.

"Water can save your life, and water can take your life."
Nancy Schley

That’s the thing about drowning: if someone isn’t in the right place at the right time, it’s a tragedy. The U.S. averages 22 nonfatal drownings and 11 drowning deaths per day. — and it can happen in an instant.

"When I was pregnant, I dreamt almost every night — I don’t know why — I dreamt that my kids were drowning," Schley said. "They were drowning. I was the one going in and getting them. I dreamt that almost every night when I was pregnant. So, when I did have the kids, I got those guys very, very quickly into the water."

Drowning is the number one cause of death for children ages one to four excluding birth defects, according to the CDC. It’s also the number two cause of unintentional injury death for kids under fifteen.

It’s not only children. In 2019, the CDC reported 3,408 drowning deaths for those 15 and older.

Data about Central Coast drownings is incomplete. Not everyone drowns in their home county, and it can be hard to track down drowning deaths at all pools.

However, there is data on beach drownings. Schmitz, the ocean swimming coach, said beach safety is an important topic in safe swimming.

"Ideally, you’d want to swim at a beach where there’s a guard," she said.

According to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, which compiles all reported statistics for beach lifeguards around the country, Santa Barbara beach guards only had to make 37 rescues in 2019. There hasn’t been a drowning on a guarded beach in the past ten years.

"The problem is that our guards stop Labor Day weekend and don’t come back on until summer. So, you should always swim with a buddy."

In the summer, the city offers swimming lessons at its public pools. Schley also said adult swimming programs are offered at Santa Barbara City College, private lessons in the area and YMCA programs.

Lance Cowart
A crowd gathers to see a water rescue at Pismo Beach in January 2021. The height of the COVID-19 pandemic saw more local ocean rescues as visitor numbers increased at Central Coast beaches.

Turner, the YMCA lifeguard, said the facility's programs are available in private or group options. The Y also does outreach programs.

"We started an event years ago called 'Learn to Swim Week.' We went to the Eastside over at Ortega pool, [and] for one week we would teach swimming lessons to all the neighbor folks," Turner said.

Swim lessons can get expensive, ranging from $30 to $70 for a 30-minute private lesson. They can be located far away, or take time families don’t have. Or they’re just not part of a family’s culture.

"We started [the program] because, well, here we are in a coastal environment, and believe it or not there are a lot of people in a coastal environment that don’t really know how to swim. So we targeted the Eastside years ago."

Turner says the turnout was in the triple digits.

"We had hundreds of kids coming in and out of that pool for a week when we first started. It was really cool."

Back at Los Baños, Coach Schley watches the master swimmers glide across the pool with steady, rhythmic movements, reflecting on her own time in the water.

"[Swimming] motivates me, gets me up, gets me going, cleans me out, cleans out the cobwebs. And it’s something that I can do for the rest of my life," she said.

"As many years as I’ve had in water and as many competitive miles that I’ve put in and on deck coaching, I have such a respect for water," she said. "I feel like I’ve mastered water, and at the same time I’m scared of it. So I have a major respect for what water can do."

"Water can save your life, and water can take your life," Schley said.

Christina is a freelance audio editor and producer. She began interning at KCBX in June of 2022 after spending the spring volunteering for KCSB, UC Santa Barbara’s student news station. Christina completed bachelors’ degrees in English and linguistics at UC Berkeley, and a masters’ degree in Phonetics at the University of York. She’s passionate about producing evocative, sound-rich stories, and is excited to learn more about the world of radio. In her free time, Christina coaches swimming.
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