Parents should put swimming lessons “front and centre of their priorities” as the country comes out of lockdown, Olympian Duncan Goodhew has said.
It comes after the sport’s governing body said the lack of lessons during the Covid pandemic meant 240,000 children had missed out on learning how to swim 25m – the length of most pools.
Swim England said more than five million swimming sessions were lost during the pandemic.
Pools first had to close in March 2020.
Indoor pools are able to open across the UK and swimming classes have resumed in England, Scotland and Wales but are still limited in Northern Ireland to one-to-one lessons.
Mr Goodhew, who is president of charity Swimathon Foundation which has a Covid relief fund to support aquatics organisations, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it was “impossible” for children to learn to swim without being in the water.
“It is particularly important with the holidays, with young kids running round at pools or the seaside who can’t swim it is a pretty frightening experience for the parent,” he said. “So I think it is really important the parents put this front and centre of their priorities and get children signed up to learn to swim.”
Mr Goodhew, who won gold at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, said 90% of pools had reopened but even before the pandemic there had been three-year waiting lists for lessons at some pools.
He said water safety, “learning about when it is safe to swim and how to look after yourself etc and a better respect for the water” was important for children.
Swim England chief executive Jane Nickerson said people had “returned to the water in droves” since pools reopened but warned the organisation expected “some regression amongst children’s swimming ability” with facilities having been closed.
She encouraged parents and guardians to be “proactive” in making up for lost time.
One parent who cannot wait to get his child in the pool is Olympic medallist Leon Taylor.
He said he was keen to start teaching his 10-month-old son Ziggy about water and swimming but as he was born in June last year he had “never even been to swimming pool” and his only water-based experiences were in the bath.
Mother-of-two Amy McCarthy, from Littlehampton, West Sussex, said she had seen deterioration in her son and daughter’s swimming ability but was “confident that we’ll be able to make up for lost time”.
But some parents have struggled to get their children into lessons.
Emma Buysman, from Buckinghamshire, said her youngest child was missing out after his lessons with a parent were cancelled during the first lockdown.
“It’s now impossible to find a lesson for him as having turned three, he cannot yet swim without parental support while those classes he was in haven’t yet moved up to the next stage as they have missed a year of classes,” she said.
She added that her local leisure centre was trying to recruit new swimming teachers but was finding it difficult to allocate both pool slots and find teachers for the level of demand.
“People want public swimming and you can’t have public swimming when you are having the lessons,” she said.
Sam Gillett, from Bath, said swimming had become “a luxury that many families cannot afford” and said the leisure centre his family used had put up swimming costs due to the pandemic.
“It would now cost us £22 for a family of four, with a two-year-old and five-year-old,” he said.
“We are a relatively well-off family and that is too much for us to afford with any regularity, what about families with much less.”