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Olympian Missy Franklin on the Most Important Thing Parents Can Do to Keep Kids Safe Around Water

You could say that Missy Franklin Johnson knows a thing or two about swimming. After all, she’s a 5-time Olympic gold medalist, winning her first 4 gold medals when she was just 17 years old. She has won 28 medals in international competitions. But though she’s no longer swimming competitively, Missy isn’t resting on her laurels. She has gone on to undertake the most important job of her life — the title of Mom to 9-month-old daughter Caitlin.

Secondary only to motherhood is her involvement in the cause she’s passionate about: the USA Swimming Foundation. She’s been active in the organization for nearly 7 years, and this year is especially exciting; after a 2-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the foundation’s Make a Splash Tour, presented by Phillips 66, was back on the road this May. With the tour, Missy and fellow Olympian swimmers went to different cities across the country bringing awareness to the importance of swim lessons, and helping connect kids to lessons in their area at little to no cost, because — as Missy points out — “Every child should have the opportunity learn how to swim regardless of their financial status.” Fundraising via the foundation helps provide swim lessons to families who may not be able to access them otherwise.

But financial barriers are just one of the factors that keep kids from learning how to swim. Another factor is whether their parents can swim. “If the parents don’t know how to swim, there’s only a 19% chance that the kids in that household are going to know how to swim — so it is literally a generational fear that gets passed down,” Missy tells SheKnows.

When it comes to that, Missy herself is a self-professed anomaly. “My mom never learned how to swim, and still to this day is terrified of the water,” she said. But the crucial difference is that her mother’s fear is what prompted her to enroll a very young Missy in swim lessons, a move that obviously paid dividends. And because of this, Missy says, her journey with the USA Swimming Foundation seemed a natural fit. So did teaching her own daughter to swim as early as possible; she put baby Caitlin in lessons at 6 months old. But as for dreams of her daughter becoming a second-generation Olympic swimmer, Missy just wants Caitlin to follow her heart. “If she gets to a certain age and she’s like, ‘I have absolutely zero interest in this,’ I’d be like, ‘OK,'” she says.

If teaching kids to swim was already a passion of hers, motherhood has made Missy 100% more dedicated to the cause. Like every mom, she says of her daughter, “I wish I could just put her in a bubble-wrapped ball and just protect her, but the truth is I’m not able to do that, and it’s a hard realization as a mom,” she says. “So what I’m having to do is say, ‘All right, what can I help protect her from?'”

Having swim lessons has been shown to reduce the risk of drowning by an astonishing 88% in kids ages 1-4, which is huge — because we’re always on the lookout for ways to keep our kids safer. Missy brings up an important point that she attributes to fellow Olympian Cullen Jones: “You would never put your kid in a car without a carseat or a seatbelt, you would never put them on a football field without a helmet and pads; why would you ever put them in a pool without swim lessons?”

She reminds us that — while she certainly sees the benefits of “floaties” for the pool — we shouldn’t be lulled into a false sense of security by them. “We need to make sure that as parents we’re not replacing swim lessons with those devices that just make it a little bit easier for the time being,” she advises. Another piece of valuable advice from the Olympian mom? Always stay vigilant, even if your child can swim, because drowning can happen at any time, to anyone.

“Even I’m not 100% water-safe; there’s no such thing. So even if your child is a seasoned swimmer and can handle themselves really well in the water, it is still your responsibility to have eyes on them at all times when they’re in a pool,” Missy says. “It’s easy to get caught up in a conversation with someone or look at an email on your phone. We call drowning the ‘silent killer’ because it happens so fast.”

According to the CDC, drowning is a leading cause of death among children, with kids ages 1-4 having the highest drowning rates – and the majority of those happen in swimming pools. More children in this age group die from drowning than from any other cause of death except birth defects.

That being said, though, Missy is clear that she doesn’t want parents to be afraid; just aware. Her ultimate hope is that parents can empower their kids by equipping them with the proper training to handle themselves safely in and around water. “This is a serious thing, and we have what we believe is essentially a cure,” she says. “We’re just trying to spread that as much as possible.”

So what happens if your kid is scared of water, and not keen on getting into a pool? Missy has some tips. First, she says, get in with your child. “If you’re a parent, getting in the water with your kids helps,” she says. “If it’s a space they’re unsure of, give them something safe: yourself. Get in the water with them so they feel a little more protected in that environment.”

Her second bit of advice is to show them how fun it can be! “Bring some of their favorite toys — maybe you have some that are just for bath time or just for when they’re in the pool, so they can look forward to those times when they’re going to be in the water playing with those certain toys,” she suggests.

To find swimming lessons near you, simply go to the USA Swimming Foundation’s Pool Finder and enter your zip code. It’s a gift you can give your kids that will pay off — not only for their own safety, but statistically, the safety of their future children too! Missy admits she might be a little biased, but swimming is so much more than just fun: “It’s the only sport that can save your life, and the only sport that you can do for the rest of your life.”


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