By Teri Saylor
Jayla Byrd has earned the nickname â€œAquawoman,â€ and certainly feels like a superhero, having progressed from being terrified to put her face in the water to being able to dive into the deep end of a pool in just one summer.
â€œBefore I took swimming lessons, I was scared,â€ she said. â€œI wasnâ€™t used to the water and I was afraid I would drown.â€
Jayla celebrated her 9th birthday by diving into water 12 feet deep at the A.D. Clark Pool at the Hargraves Community Center, where she participated in the centerâ€™s summer camp program.
â€œThe first times I tried to dive, I always did belly flops,â€ she said.
Jayla goes in head-first now, and she knows how to make her way to the surface.
â€œI kick my feet and push up, and then my head comes out,â€ she said.
Jayla is one of 160 Chapel Hill campers who had a chance to learn to swim or improve their swimming skills at no cost this summer at the Hargraves Center.
The Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation Department tried out a free swimming program for their community campers in anticipation of becoming a local partner in USA Swimmingâ€™s Make A Splash Foundation, a national child-focused water-safety initiative.
â€œWe have an engaged audience,â€ said Lizzie Burrill, assistant aquatic supervisor. â€œOver the years, we have seen campers who canâ€™t swim in the deep end. This is the first summer we have offered swimming lessons at the summer camp.â€
Burrill has proclaimed the program, which ended last month, a success, and hopes to expand to the entire community next year.
â€œOur goal is to become part of the Make A Splash Foundation, and its programs will be offered to anyone in Orange County,â€ Burrill said.
USA Swimming created Make A Splash because of high drowning rates. Nine people drown daily in the U.S., and drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental death among children under the age of 14, according to Make A Splash. The organizationâ€™s mission is to create opportunities for children to learn to swim by the third grade.
With the help of people like Karysha Reid, Make A Splashâ€™s goals become more possible. As one of the camp counselors with the Hargraves program, Reid is a believer.
A lifelong swimmer, she would like for everyone in the world to learn to love swimming as much as she does.
â€œI was a total water baby,â€ she said. â€œWhen I was 2, I cried when my parents would not let me swim in rain puddles.â€
An ambitious youngster, Reid, now 24, was on a mission to be a lifeguard for Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation, so she saved her babysitting money for lifesaving lessons, and the day she turned 15, old enough to become a certified lifeguard, she took the test, claimed her job and hasnâ€™t stopped since.
A junior at UNC-Greensboro, she is majoring in health studies and plans to pursue a masterâ€™s degree in aqua therapy.
â€œLearning to swim and knowing how to swim is a life skill,â€ she said. â€œSwimming is therapeutic, so lovely. Just learning the basics and refining your skills makes swimming easy.â€
Capturing the moment
Specializing in water portraits, Chapel Hill artist Barbara Tyroler embraced the Hargraves Center swimming program, capturing the joyful faces of kids having fun in the pool.
â€œWith grant support from the Orange County Arts Commission, I have documented my most favorite subject: people in the pool with an emphasis on community,â€ she wrote in an email.
Chapel Hill Cultural Arts administrator Jeff York and Chapel Hill Aquatics supervisor Robb English are collaborating with Tyroler to set up a permanent installation of her work at the Homestead Aquatic Center.
â€œAt the Homestead Aquatic Center, I hope to enhance the feeling of community and celebrate health and beauty. The grant will also fund portrait gifts for the young swimmers and their families and publicity photos for the summer camp program,â€ she said.
Chapel Hillâ€™s newest crop of swimmers are believers, and even though summer is winding down, Jaylaâ€™s mom, Marie Dean, is preparing to enroll her daughter in fall lessons so she can continue her progress in the pool.
â€œI hope Jayla will start swimming year round,â€ Dean said.
Words like that make Burrill happy.
â€œI love working with the community and providing an outlet for people to gain new skills,â€ she said.
Reid, who calls herself the strict mama bear of the pool scene, is proud of her little cubs.
Among her level-one kids, most were afraid to even put their faces in the water.
â€œWe started out by blowing bubbles in the water and by the end of the sessions, all of them were putting their faces in the water,â€ she said.
Her level-two kids enjoyed improving on the basics.
â€œThey passed their swim test; they learned how to dive and they learned how to do flip turns,â€ she said.
The 2012 Olympics in London are right around the corner, and the athletes who make the USA team started out as beginners.
Will a future Olympian come out of Chapel Hillâ€™s swimming program?
Reid canâ€™t predict the future, but she is certain about one thing.
â€œAll my kids are superstars.â€