The women bobbed and blew bubbles in the pool as sprinkles of rain dotted the waterslide nearby. They kept their eyes on their swimming instructor. He held his arms skyward. He dived below. He glided through the water. "You can do this, too,'' he hollered over the rain's pitter-patter. "But remember, practice does not make perfect. It's perfect practice that makes perfect.'' The women nodded and got to work. It was the second session of the Ladies of the Ridgecrest Community Swim Class. Vic Wickman, a swimming instructor at the YMCA of the Suncoast — Greater Ridgecrest Branch, is teaching the eight-week course to adults.
Wickman, who also owns a life insurance business in Clearwater, began volunteering as a swimming instructor at the Ridgecrest YMCA last year.
A year ago, he was focused on youth summer campers. Now Wickman, who received his first water safety instruction certification from the American Red Cross more than 50 years ago when he was a student at Clearwater High School, is teaching their moms and grandmothers.
"It is a known fact that 90 percent of kids whose parents don't swim, won't swim. I believe the Lord has given me a supernatural ability to work with people who are afraid of the water,'' Wickman said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, between 2000 and 2005, the unintentional drowning rate for African-Americans across all ages was 1.3 times that of whites. In children ages 5 to 14, that figure is 3.2 times that of white children.
"If a parent is afraid of the water, that fear is handed down to the children," said Wickman, whose work as a volunteer earned him the 2008 Volunteer of the Year award through the YMCA of the Suncoast. "I'm trying to help those with a fear to be proficient swimmers and enjoy it.''
Economics and lack of access to pools also contribute to the high percentage of nonswimmers in a historically African-American community like Ridgecrest, according to Stephanie Zaragoza, executive director of the Ridgecrest YMCA.
"Historically, the Greater Ridgecrest community has not had affordable access to any kind of aquatic venues," she said. "So, in return, many have never learned to swim. Vic's sheer dedication here is something you don't see every day.''
Edward "BeBe" Hobson, a member of the board of directors for the YMCA of the Suncoast, introduced administrators at the Ridgecrest branch to Wickman. He thinks it's a perfect match.
"The YMCA realized there was a need," said Hobson, who forged a friendship with Wickman 15 years ago through a men's Bible study group. "We don't get any better than Vic Wickman.
"The YMCA takes Christian principles and puts them into practice. (Wickman's) program works at the YMCA because he is allowed to work without restraint. He's allowed to show his relationship with God.''
At the beginning of each class, Wickman tackles the biggest challenge first.
"The first step is to put their head under water while pushing air out of their mouth and nose," he said. "If you don't blow bubbles when you get your face in the water, you can choke because water comes into your nose and mouth. After you learn this, everything else is downhill.''
For Elizabeth Bennett, 48, the class has been life-changing.
Growing up in Largo, she stayed out of the water even on hot summer days due to health issues and a caring, albeit overprotective, mother. Coupled with the loss of a family member in a water accident, she is battling a lifelong fear of the water.
"At the first class, I was so scared my head was hurting,'' she said. "But Vic said a prayer and reminded me God's got my back. Now, I'm swimming, and I never realized how excited I'd be."