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Family Matters: Survival of the Littlest: One Mom's Mission


By: Claire Mullen

I’m ashamed to confess what follows, but in the interest of saving lives, here you have it: two out of two of my children have had near-drowning incidents.

Our family is able to retrospectively chuckle at my son’s mishap, because it ended just about as quickly as it began, with my loafered husband diving fully clothed, phone still in his pocket, into the too-chilly-for-swimming water at a poolside barbecue. Our fearless toddler had decided to ditch his dinner plate and take a running leap from the lawn chair he was sharing with his dad into the deep end as the other party guests looked on. My husband drove us home that evening in his boxer shorts and didn’t utter a word until he finally piped up with, “the ONLY reason Ace didn’t inhale a bunch of water is that his mouth was still crammed full of hot dog when I pulled him up.”
I can’t laugh about my older daughter’s incident. In fact, it’s difficult to even think about. She was barely 3 years old and had yet to learn to swim. Admittedly, we had all become far too reliant on her popular brand of clip-on toddler flotation device. Our family was enjoying a dinnertime swim at our club pool, and, while my husband and infant son splashed around in the shallow “kiddie end,” I removed my daughter’s float before escorting her to the restroom.

As we stepped back onto the deck, I directed my typically obedient child to head to our table across the pool. Our food had just been delivered, and I went to fetch her dad and brother. And then, in the maybe 20 seconds it took for me to walk the short distance to signal to the boys in the shallow end of the busy pool, my girl quietly pencil-jumped into the over-her-head water. When I turned back to find that our table was empty, I began frantically scanning the water and stopped at the horrifying sight of a woman hoisting my sputtering, wide-eyed daughter out of the pool. I can’t bear to think what could have happened if the skirt of that lady’s swimsuit had not been within tugging reach of a panicky little hand.

When I scooped up my too-shocked-to-cry preschooler, the first thing she managed to say was, “Mommy, I’m sorry! I forgot I didn’t have on my floatie.”

The thing is, water accidents happen, and happen often. They happen to the children of even the most protective of parents. They happen winter, spring, summer and fall. They happen in crowded areas with lifeguards on duty and in backyard swimming pools with seemingly impenetrable security fences. While so many of us parents do everything we can think of to prevent these horrific occurrences, what we often fail to consider is what to teach our babies to do if one such emergency should happen.

One Fayetteville mom has made this her mission.

Nicole Burkhart has always loved the water. As a child growing up in West Palm Beach, Florida, swimming pools and the Atlantic Ocean were her playgrounds. She began
swimming competitively at age 7 and went on to swim at the Junior Olympic and collegiate levels while also teaching swimming lessons in her spare time. Nicole has coached numerous swim teams, has worked as an elementary school teacher, married her husband John, a major in the Army Special Forces and become a mother of three.

From the beginning of parenthood, Nicole wanted her children to share her love of the water. It was on a summer stay in Colorado 10 years ago that she first heard of
the international Infant Swimming Resource. The concept – which involves a series of private lessons from a certified instructor who would teach her then-2-year-old to rescue herself in the event of a water emergency – intrigued the young mom who also had an infant in tow. Aware that no such program existed back home, Nicole enrolled her daughter in a six-week session of ISR lessons. What Burkhart did not know was that this newfound program would come to change the trajectory of her life nearly a decade later.

Although Nicole will tell you that she knew from almost the first lesson that she wanted to be a part of the ISR team, she also acknowledges that it took her a long time to be able to dedicate the amount of time it took to make her dream of offering the Infant Swimming Resource program in the Fayetteville area a reality. The process of becoming a certified ISR instructor is a daunting one and required that Nicole move to Florida for the better part of last summer to undergo eight weeks of intensive in and out-of-water training to learn the unique skill sets necessary to teach young children to save themselves from drowning. Nicole became officially certified as an ISR instructor on Aug. 1, 2020 and could not get back to Fayetteville fast enough to implement the program in her community.

She is careful to distinguish what she does from traditional swim lessons. “ISR teaches using behavioral psychology, sensory-motor learning and positive reinforcement to make an otherwise unforgiving water environment safe for children to learn what will work to allow them to make progress in swimming or floating and obtain air when they need it. Six to 12-month-olds learn to hold their breath underwater, roll onto their backs to float unassisted and wait for help to arrive. Children who can walk proficiently are taught to hold their breath when they go under, swim with their heads down, roll onto their backs to float, rest, breathe and roll back over to resume swimming, continuing this sequence until they reach safety. And we customize each one-on-one lesson to that specific child’s ability in the water.”
It takes Coach Nicole working with each child for 10 minutes a day, five days a week, for five to six weeks to achieve skills that could very well one day save their lives.
Since August, Burkhart has graduated over 50 students ranging in age from 6 months to 6 years from her specialized lessons. Along the way, she has garnered a growing fan club of grateful parents who still marvel at their children’s accomplishments and sing their instructor’s praises. Hollie Fleming, whose daughter completed ISR lessons at only 10 months old, recalls her fearful, screaming infant entering the pool with Nicole on Day 1, “but by the end of our six weeks, she could quickly, calmly and confidently turn herself over underwater and float on the surface. When my husband and I saw her do that, we knew we’d done the best thing for her.”

Jessica Rogers credits Nicole and ISR with restoring her family’s confidence in the water after a swimming accident while on a lake vacation left both Rogers and her 4-year-old son traumatized. “I called Nicole the moment we returned from vacation to enroll both my son and 1-year-old daughter,” says Rogers. “Nicole is wonderful. She helped me trust the process and explained everything in great detail at each lesson. She patiently worked through bumps in the road and set goals for both of my children. The skills she’s taught them are absolutely priceless. I will forever be grateful for the program, and for Nicole.” “I have to add,” says Rogers, “after just a few weeks of classes we returned to the lake and my son’s fear of the water was non-existent. Watching him be confident and relaxed in the water made this mama’s heart very, very happy.”

The mission of Infant Swimming Resource is simple yet profound, “Not One More Child Drowns.” Thanks to one military spouse and busy mother of three who took the plunge quite literally to turn a lifelong passion into a career in water safety, our community is 50 children closer to reaching that goal. And counting.
For more information: www.infantswim.com, n.burkhart@infantswim.com.

Claire Mullen can be reached at clairejlmullen@gmail.com.