Swim pioneer Bill Meier’s mission is to transcend fear, increase safety

Swim pioneer Bill Meier’s mission is to transcend fear, increase safety

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

Bill Meier, a Massachusetts swim coach, has earned national recognition for his dedication to safe swimming at all levels. He literally wrote the book on teaching adult swim lessons that is used nationwide.

Loading…

August 13, 2021

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 5 Min. )

Pandemic closures of pools and record heat waves have inspired Americans to seek adventure on lakes and rivers – correspondingly increasing the risk of drowning and causing authorities to restrict open water swimming.  

Massachusetts has reported 47 drownings and near-fatalities since January; in May, there were more than double the number of fatalities from May 2020. Other states, particularly around the Great Lakes, report similar spikes. 

Why We Wrote This

A spate of drownings in Massachusetts resulted in restrictions on open water swimming. But Bill Meier – a pioneer of water safety – is on a mission to increase water safety among all levels of swimmers. (For a deeper dive into open water swim lessons, be sure to check out our gallery.)

While the thought of open water swimming inspires many, fears of the unknown in the deep are real to beginners and even to experienced swimmers hesitant to stroke beyond the ropes. Bill Meier, a nationally recognized swim safety expert who literally wrote the book on teaching adults to swim, aims to educate all levels of swimmers with his safety clinics to simultaneously minimize risk and maximize outdoor enjoyment.

“We don’t want to try to hinder people from enjoying being outside,” says Mr. Meier.

“There are so many adults who’ve had a traumatic experience in the water,” he adds, “and because of that, they stay away from it. When you can help to get somebody over that [fear], then that is the single greatest gift you can give.”

Great Barrington, Mass.

Bill Meier stands at the water’s edge of Lake Mansfield, his arms spread wide like an evangelical preacher, a smile stretching across his face. Basking in the sun’s rays after days of rain, he addresses a small flock gathered before him and exclaims, “Are we fortunate or what?”

The assembled group, fluorescent safety buoys around their waists, is preparing for a baptism of sorts with their submergence into an open water swim safety clinic. 

But before the goggled swimmers – mostly adults, some beginners – can dip a toe in the water, Mr. Meier invites the group to testify what they love about swimming outdoors. Some talk about swimming without boundaries, others the love of nature, and even freedom itself.

Why We Wrote This

A spate of drownings in Massachusetts resulted in restrictions on open water swimming. But Bill Meier – a pioneer of water safety – is on a mission to increase water safety among all levels of swimmers. (For a deeper dive into open water swim lessons, be sure to check out our gallery.)

Nodding approval, Mr. Meier launches into a safety sermon: Study the weather and the shore topography; don’t swim alone; wear a safety buoy; know your limits; swim toward a fixed point at water level; have an exit plan. If you feel anxious, roll onto your back, catch your breath, and, he says, “Look around the lake and see how beautiful it is. When you are comfortable, get going again.” 

Mr. Meier, a local swim coach who has earned national recognition for his dedication to safe swimming at all levels, organized the safety clinic in response to a statewide spike in drownings this year. Pending legislation proposes bans and heavy fines on some open water swimming in state parks, but he thinks there’s a better way. For 10 years, he has pioneered adult swim lessons to help people transcend fear of the water and swim safely. That same education, he says, can be applied outdoors. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

PaceMakers Masters swim team member Julia Kasden (left) helps instruct newcomers on the benefits of open water swimming at Bill Meier’s adult open water swim clinic at Lake Mansfield in Massachusetts in July 2021.

“We don’t want to try to hinder people from enjoying being outside,” says Mr. Meier, who also serves on the local parks and recreation commission. “How can we all do this together so we can make our state a better place to live?”

While the thought of open water inspires many, fears of the unknown in the deep are real to beginners and even to experienced swimmers hesitant to stroke beyond the ropes. Plus risks around open water swimming have risen dramatically as people have sought adventure on lakes and rivers amid pandemic pool closures, record heat waves, and a lifeguard shortage. Massachusetts has reported 47 drownings and near-fatalities since January; in May, there were more than double the number of fatalities from May 2020. Other states, particularly around the Great Lakes, report similar spikes.

Mr. Meier has made improving lives through swimming his mission since settling in western Massachusetts three decades ago. Traveling pool to pool, he pieced together a livelihood building up the swimming community through youth and adult lessons and teams, and lifeguard training. When Bard College at Simon’s Rock opened a fitness center here in 1998, he was tapped to help run it. While teaching children during a week of free swim lessons 10 years ago, he discovered many parents also wanted to learn. So he typed out an 11-page instruction manual on how to teach adults and recruited adult swim team members to instruct them. 


Where there’s smoke, there’s fire – and political unity

“There are so many adults who’ve had a traumatic experience in the water, and because of that, they stay away from it,” says Mr. Meier. “When you can help to get somebody over that [fear], then that is the single greatest gift you can give.”

As the gospel of Mr. Meier’s free adult swim lessons spread across New England, U.S. Masters Swimming adopted his guide as the foundation of its nationwide curriculum. Since launching the Adult Learn-to-Swim certification program in 2015, USMS has trained 2,100 instructors. Mr. Meier estimates he has helped teach close to half those instructors, in 35 cities.

“Bill is a creator and a doer. He saw a need and fulfilled it, overcoming the odds,” says Ray Zelehoski, a retired middle school teacher who assisted at the swim safety clinic here. He has known Mr. Meier for 30 years and helps coach the PaceMakers Masters swim team and adult swim classes. 

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

Bill Meier, teaching at a July open water swim clinic at Lake Mansfield, preaches safety no matter what level a swimmer is.

Training adults to swim is a significant link in ensuring water safety for all, says Bill Brenner, program director for USMS. More than one-third of American adults can’t swim the length of a pool, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Approximately 45% of children who cannot swim also had a parent or caregiver with low swimming ability, according to a 2017 report by the University of Memphis commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation.

“Bill was instrumental in getting the first edition of the [Adult Learn-to-Swim] curriculum written,” says Mr. Brenner. “His passion is contagious.” 

Access to swim lessons requires access to pools and lakes, and historically that access has been segregated or absent in communities of color. The CDC reports drowning rates for Black people are 1.4% higher than rates for white people; among Black people ages 5 to 19, fatality rates in pools are almost six times that of young people who are white. 

It’s a problem that William Kolb and Amy Benton in Louisville, Kentucky, hope to correct. Avid swimmers, both were troubled that the east end of Louisville has an abundance of pools, while the historically African American west end had only one pool with public access. After earning the Adult Learn-to-Swim certification, they announced free swim lessons for adults in a west end pool. The response was overwhelming.

“We started a class in April of 2018 in Louisville with four sessions, and we taught 40 adults to swim for free and … we have not been able to stop teaching since then,” says Mr. Kolb, who adds that a majority of their students are Black women between 60 and 70 years old. “We have about a thousand people on our waiting list.” 

Mr. Kolb, who is finishing his teaching degree in education at the University of Louisville, says he stays in contact with Mr. Meier for advice and inspiration. “He constantly reminds me – you have this internal function to help others. You just need to find a way to find joy in it and keep going,” he says.

One of the first students in the Louisville program was Patricia Mathison. “It was so liberating,” recalls the grandmother of two, who adds that although she always loved to go on cruises, now she can snorkel without a safety vest. “My whole generation basically didn’t learn how to swim, and we didn’t have [the skills] to pass them to the next one. … I never knew how much your body can be in tune with the water. And once I discovered that, I was like, ‘This is nice.’”

Get the Monitor Stories you care about delivered to your inbox.

Your email address

By signing up, you agree to our Privacy Policy.

As a gospel recording artist, Ms. Mathison has been instrumental in spreading the word about the free lessons, helping
organize the Louisville program into a nonprofit, and serving on its board. She also took the USMS instructor certification program with Mr. Meier in 2019 so now she can teach others to submerge in water, tread for a minute, rotate 360 degrees, and swim 25 yards to the side of the pool and climb out without the use of a ladder – requirements for the Adult Learn-to-Swim program.

Helping people learn how to transcend their fears, feel safe in the water, and potentially save swimmers’ lives is a continuous reward, says Mr. Meier. “You’re standing next to them. You’re comforting them. And it is just a way to feel other people’s pain and help take that away.” 

You’ve read  of  free articles.
Subscribe to continue.

Help fund Monitor journalism for $11/ month

Already a subscriber? Login


Mark Sappenfield
Editor

Monitor journalism changes lives because we open that too-small box that most people think they live in. We believe news can and should expand a sense of identity and possibility beyond narrow conventional expectations.

Our work isn’t possible without your support.

Subscribe

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Already a subscriber? Login

Digital subscription includes:

  • Unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.
  • CSMonitor.com archive.
  • The Monitor Daily email.
  • No advertising.
  • Cancel anytime.

Subscribe

Related stories