NEW PORT RICHEY
A poster of a 2-year-old girl was mounted 10 feet from the registration booth at Cor Total Fitness on Thursday. The girl had dark eyes, a pink checkered two-piece outfit with lacy frills, satiny pink shoes, a bright blue hat hiding her blond hair and a smile with only a couple teeth.
The little girl was Katelyn Michaud, who drowned eight years ago in her family's swimming pool.
It was hard for her mother, Sandra Testo-Michaud, now 41, to heal from a strangling depression. She did so in part by founding the Katelyn Foundation, a nonprofit that provides free swimming lessons to children.
The print under Katelyn's picture read, "Drowning is the number one cause of accidental death in children under the age of five."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's numbers confirm the statement, adding that three children drown every day.
In Florida, 1,729 people accidentally drowned between 1999 and 2003, according to the Florida Department of Health. Of those, 356 were children ages 1 to 4, giving Florida the highest rate of accidental drowning deaths for this age group.
Katelyn, who drowned in 2004, was one of them.
Ben Flores, 6, won't be.
Ben practiced swimming in electric blue goggles that matched his swim trunks while his mother, Gabby Flores, 35, beckoned to him from the middle of the pool at the fitness center. When anyone walked by them on the concrete around the pale tiles, he cried out, "Watch this!" and dove underwater to perform a loose breaststroke.
Ben has taken three half-hour swimming lessons at Testo-Michaud's home in Trinity. Gabby said he took six weeks of lessons at a local recreation center and didn't even learn to float. After three lessons at Testo-Michaud's pool, he can pull off a breaststroke, clumsy freestyle and underwater dive.
Thursday's lesson was part of a partnership with the World's Largest Swimming Lesson, a global event that reaches out to pools, recreation centers and drowning prevention organizations to spread awareness of water safety.
The lesson started worldwide at 3 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time, 11 a.m. in Florida.
Ben and Gabby were already in the pool when the foundation's aquatic director, Jan Harrison, 52, blew a plastic red whistle to start the lesson. Ben was one of 42 people in the pool, 36 of them children as young as a year old through adolescence.
It lasted only half an hour — just long enough for lessons but without trying the children's short attention spans.
Gabby signaled to Ben, helping him follow the lessons. He did bobs, floats, strokes as she pointed and nodded.
At one point, all the children grabbed the wall and kicked their bodies up to the surface, filling the air with the roar of legs slapping water.
As soon as he wasn't being told what to do, Ben dove down, testing those goggles.
Harrison eventually blew the whistle again, signaling the end of the lesson. Testo-Michaud took down their numbers to add to the total count for the global event, which will determine whether it's set a new Guinness World Record, as it did in 2010. Results are expected today.
Gabby guided Ben to the middle as people climbed, dripping, from the pool. She beckoned to him to swim to her. He gave a little kick when he saw he was close, launching himself into her arms.
Mary Kenney can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.