Michigan Olympic hero hopes to save lives

Peter Vanderkaay helps children learn to swim with 'Detroit Swims'

Published On: Oct 23 2012 11:04:38 PM EDT   Updated On: Oct 25 2012 03:56:09 PM EDT
DETROIT -

It's a life-saving skill that can be out of reach for many Michigan children. But an Olympic gold-medal winning hometown swimmer is diving in to help out.

Peter Vanderkaay, 28, is home now after winning his fourth Olympic medal at the summer games in London.

While The Rochester native decides if he wants to continue swimming competitively, he's working on making sure children in Detroit know how to swim.

"If you grow up in the city you have less chance of learning to swim than you do in the suburbs.  And that, that really hurts me because I am a swimmer. I feel everyone should have the opportunity to learn to swim.  it should be a basic right," said Vanderkaay.

Vanderkaay recently got in the pool at the Boll Family YMCA to help some children with their swimming technique. That's where Nikole Saffle, senior program director for the Boll Family YMCA, oversees the Detroit Swims initiative. It's goal is to raise $100,000 annually and use it to teach 1,500 children how to swim each year.  The ultimate goal is to teach all the children in Detroit how to swim  before they reach the fifth-grade.

Saffle said knowing how to swim isn't just for fun. She says seven out of 10 children in urban cities never learn how to swim. And the
drowning rate for African-American and Latino children is three times higher than kids in the suburbs.

"Kids drown and they don't need to.  We have the solution to that, just teach a kid how to swim. The Y is working really hard to just destroy the drowning statistics in our area," said Saffle.

Saffle said the children are "ridiculously excited" to meet and learn from Vanderkaay.

"To have someone who has the credibility he has and just the absolute talent and the draw of the entire swimming community supporting our program is just huge for us. We're so thankful that he recognizes how important this program is to the city," said Saffle.

Vanderkaay and his family have helped raise money over the years and have donated swimsuits. The role model in the water says the one thing he always tells children is to imagine themselves being successful and stick to it.

"I always tell kids when I'm talking to them at clinics, if you can't imagine yourself succeeding, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage because you really have to see yourself winning.  And that's something I would do before the Olympics was imagining myself winning my race or winning a medal and it's just funny how things work out if you think about it hard enough and want it bad enough," said Vanderkaay.

Vanderkaay made his Olympic debut in Athens, Greece in 2004. He won a gold medal and set a world record as part of the 800 meter freestyle relay team.  He returned to the Olympic pool in Beijing, China in 2008 and came home with a gold in the 800 meter freestyle relay and a bronze in the 200 meter freestyle.  This past summer in London he won a bronze medal in the 400 meter freestyle.

"Right now I'm trying to decide if I want to keep swimming or not.  I'm staying in shape but I haven't quite committed to another four years," said Vanderkaay. "It's been exciting and I'm looking forward to the future."

If Vanderkaay decides to continue swimming competitively, he would be training towards the next Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Detroit Swims had 741 graduates this year and currently has about 158 kids on a waiting list to learn to swim. As for their fundraising goal, they've raised $88,000 with two more months to reach their goal of $100,000.

The Boll Family YMCA is always looking for volunteers, donated swimsuits and funds to keep the program going.
To learn more or donate, visit  Boll Family YMCA’s Detroit Swims Initiative.