Annual Beaufort River Swim raises funds for the Y’s Learn to Swim program

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When the swimmers hit the water at 7:15 a.m. Saturday for the Beaufort River Swim, now in its 13th consecutive year, spectators will see some of the best swimmers in the Lowcountry take part in the 3.2-mile open-water race.

Oddly enough, however, the Beaufort River Swim is really all about people like Leigh Aiken, originally from St. Helena Island.

The Beaufort River Swim, hosted by the Wardle Family YMCA in Port Royal, is actually a fundraiser for the YMCA Learn To Swim Program.

And that’s where people like Leigh Aiken come in.

Fear of the water

Thanks, in part, to her protective parents, Aiken was afraid of the water from the start.

“Stay away from that water! Never ever go near that water!” Aiken recalls hearing.

“If you were a child growing up in the Lowcountry, you were probably told this on a daily basis,” she said. “In my community (Warsaw and Pollawanna Island on St. Helena Island), the water was something to fear. You could drown and possibly never be found.” 

Aiken grew up, graduated from high school and left the Lowcountry. But her fear of the water never fully left.

“I always heard my parents warning (me) to stay away from the water (in my head),” she said.

While living in Seattle, the grip of Aiken’s fear seemed to be loosening. But then tragedy struck on a rafting trip.

“Because of that year’s snowmelt, the water was rough and scary,” Aiken said. “My canoe capsized, and I was pulled to safety. Unfortunately, one of our friends in the group drowned that day. It was devastating.”

It was also in Seattle that Leigh decided to cool off in her neighborhood pool on an unseasonable hot day.

“I drifted, unknowingly, into the deep end of the pool and then I panicked,” Aiken said. “I was not aware of anything until I found myself on the pool deck with someone pushing on my chest. That person, my neighbor saved me that day, and I thank God for sending him. 

“I never went into another body of water in Seattle again.”

Closer to home

Eventually, Aiken’s job brought her to Atlanta, much closer to home, and she visited her family in the Lowcountry more often, including her “favorite brother,” who had 22 years of Navy experience and swam like a fish. 

She often watched him leave for a day of fishing from the safety of the dock. But what came next only solidified Aiken’s fear of the water.

“In 2005, my brother did not return from fishing one day. He drowned, and our family never got closure or truly knew what happened,” Aiken said. “After this incident, I hated the water. The joy and the beauty of the Lowcountry was gone for me. It took several years of praying and searching for peace, because I still had to visit … my family is here.”

In 2006, Aiken retired and found herself visiting the Lowcountry even more often before moving back n 2013, when she settled on Lady’s Island.

This is when she found the YMCA and instructor and personal trainer Jeff Lewis. 

Working her way back

 “I took kickboxing classes, which turned into running, which led me to doing 10K bridge runs in Savannah and Charleston. To prep for the runs and give us strength training, one day Jeff said, ‘We are going to get into the pool.’ 

“Well, I said, ‘That’s it for me, no pool. I will not put my face into that water and I am deathly afraid of the water!’ 

“But by this time, Jeff’s class felt like family and no one tried to pushed me toward getting in the pool, instead they said things like ‘I will help you Ms. Leigh,’ ‘We’ve got your back!’ and ‘You can do this!’ ”

Gradually Aiken became more confident. 

“I was given some goggles and told to just put my face into the water very slowly,” Aiken said. “I thought, ‘Okay, I can do that!’ Besides, me being the only one in this group that couldn’t swim … was not cool.”

Before she knew it, Aiken was in (YMCA aquatics director) Lou Bergen’s office wanting to register for swim lessons. 

“She was excited to get me enrolled. I started out taking lessons with Shelia, but it was close to her summer hiatus in Maine, so I began in earnest with Instructor Franzi,” Aiken said. “We have been together since last fall. She is patient, supportive and we laugh together, even when I mess up.”

Swimming is not a luxury

What if someone wants to learn to swim, but unlike Aiken, doesn’t have the financial means to do so?

The Y is the answer.

The Y Learn to Swim Program provides the financial assistance for children, families, and individuals in the community to take swimming lessons and be safe around the water. 

In 2018, the Y taught more than 7,000 swimming sessions. Hundreds of these were with Learn to Swim program participants who received financial assistance, due in part to proceeds raised at the Beaufort River Swim.

Among preventable injuries, drowning is the leading cause of death for children, ages 1 to 4; the second leading cause of death for children, ages 5 to 14; and the third leading cause of death for children under the age of 1 and ages 15 to 17 in the United States. 

Swimming is “not only a recreational activity – it’s a skill that saves lives,” Bergen said. “Swimming programs not only teach people how to swim, but they also provide other safety training such as CPR, demonstrations of how to use safety equipment, like flotation devices, and tips on safe places to swim.

“At the Y, we believe learning how to swim is a necessity not a privilege, so we work to eliminate any obstacles that may interfere with someone’s ability to learn to swim. We do this by offering age-appropriate group classes, private lessons and financial assistance through our Learn to Swim program.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of adults in the United States can’t swim the length of a pool, which puts them at risk of being one of the 10 people who drown every day in the U.S. 

Overcoming her fears

Aiken doesn’t intend to be one of those statistics. But she has found that learning to swim as an adult is not as easy as you might expect. 

“It uses muscles that I didn’t know I had, and swimming in the winter takes a lot of discipline. These lessons have been most challenging, but when you begin to get the hang of it, it can be fun,” Aiken said.

Aiken’s story is a powerful reminder that even through tragedy, there can be peace and even moments of triumph. 

“Never think you are too old to learn something new, and don’t limit your learning,” Aiken said. “I understood my parents’ warnings because it was out of love and a reflection of what they were taught from their parents. 

“Learn how to overcome your fears, believe in yourself, and put yourself in the company of positive people. Join the Y. Get in the water.”

The 13th Annual Beaufort River Swim

Saturday, May 18

The 3.2-mile competitive open water swim and one-mile fun swim in the Beaufort River supports the Wardle Family YMCA Learn to Swim Program. 

Want to swim? Register online at beaufortriverswim.com or at the downtown Beaufort Marina starting at 6 a.m. on the day of the race. The 3.2-mile race starts at 7:15 a.m. and the fun swim starts at 7:45 a.m. 

Cost: The price for the 3.2-Mile Race is $65. The price for the Fun Swim is $40. 

Want to watch? Spectator boat tickets are available at $30 per person. Purchase at the Y in Port Royal (1801 Richmond Ave.).


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