Co-creator of 'Josh the Otter' hopes to save lives by teaching kids to swim

June 11, 2024, 10 a.m. ·

Josh the Otter
Children learn to swim as part of the Josh the Otter campaign. (Ann Milroy photo)

DALE JOHNSON: In 2008, Kathy and Blake Collingsworth of Lincoln were hosting family at their home when their 2 ½-year-old son, Joshua, slipped out of sight. He was found unconscious and unresponsive in the backyard pool. In his honor, Joshua's parents launched the Joshua Collingsworth Memorial Foundation, out of which came the book, "Josh the Otter," aimed at initiating a conversation about water safety. Blake, thanks for talking with me today, not only about your son, but about the foundation.

BLAKE COLLINGSWORTH: Anytime we have the opportunity to talk about water safety, we love the opportunity.

JOHNSON: Statistically for children between the ages of 1-4, drowning is the leading cause of death. I found that odd, Blake, that respect for the water is often a conversation that parents don't have with their children.

COLLINGSWORTH: I had to find that out the hard way. We came home from the hospital after being up there for three days, came home and looked at that pool and tried to figure out what happened to us that day. And then we started doing some research and when I saw that was the number one cause, and I didn't know that information, it really did upset me. I just felt like society should know this. If it's the number one cause.

JOHNSON: Not knowing how to swim isn't a child thing. I discovered, Blake, the CDC reports that 40 million adults don't know how to swim and about 55% have never even taken a swimming lesson.

COLLINGSWORTH: It's the only sport that people do that can save your life. And so we highly encourage parents, you know, piano lessons are good. ballet lessons are good. Soccer is good. Get them into swim lessons as soon as you possibly can. Because once you start early, it's something they pick up very quickly. And then they have a lifelong skill that they can utilize, potentially save their life, but also something they can enjoy and they're not going to be on a boat or in different situations and nervous because they don't know how to swim.

JOHNSON: Take a few moments and tell me about one of your most recent projects, the float for life national training facility.

COLLINGSWORTH: We opened a physical building in April 2020 at 14th and Yankee Hill Road in South Lincoln. And we're very proud of the fact that we have a specially designed pool that we use to help train infants and toddlers and started as early as 6 months. And we're teaching over 800 lessons a month out of that pool with five instructors. And we're bringing instructors from all over the United States. And we're showing them our technique of how we get these kids in the water. And then once we get them to a stage where they are fully invested in the training, we actually have a graduation and they fall in the pool, fully clothed, flip on their back, get in the starfish position and they get air and then they actually do kind of do a little backstroke to get to the side of the pool and or the steps. And that's what we consider our graduation class. We believe they should back float and then learn to swim. Joshua fell in the side of our pool. When he got out there, we believe he saw his older brother's water gun. His older brother never let him play with it. He saw an opportunity, hey, there's a water gun. There's my older brother's water gun, he's not around, I'm going to try to play with it. We believe he was trying to fill it and fell in the side of the pool. He was 2 ½. And if he had had these techniques, which I know he is perfectly capable of learning fairly quick, I had a really good golf swing, working on him with a little plastic clubs and plastic balls. So I know he could learn this technique. He could you know, have not panicked, flipped on his back, held his breath, held the side of the pool. Even if he couldn't crawl out, he would have been getting air, he wouldn't have been taking in water, he could have cried, whatever the case may be. It's such a simple technique. And every child should learn to do this. And we've even taught adults. We've taught a gentleman 52 years old.

JOHNSON: How can people learn more about the float for life national training facility or a program that would be similar?

COLLINGSWORTH: What you want to do is you want to just call up and ask if they do an infant and toddler water training course. Or you want to ask him what age groups they start them out at. And anytime you're gonna go to a swim school, you know, find out if you have any friends that have had their kids there, do your due diligence, go in and watch them teach classes. It's important once you get them in there, ask if they're happy and they learn this. Like I said, it's a lifelong skill that they'll have for the rest of their life. And they're more likely to teach their kids, too because that's when you use those statistics of these older people that don't know how to swim, they're less likely to teach their kid and we need to make this a generational change where everybody learns how to swim.

JOHNSON: This is the time to have the conversation because soon it consistently will be warm enough to swim outdoors. So Blake, thank you for sharing that information. By the way, is a place to go if you'd like to get more information. More than half a million copies of Josh the otter have gone to daycares, preschools and classrooms. The legislature got active in January of 2022. There was a Josh the Otter specialty license plate with money going to support water safety efforts.

COLLINGSWORTH: If you get one of those Josh plates it's only $5. If you want the vanity one it costs a little bit more, all that money goes to Nebraska Game and Parks and they funnel it through us. And we're going to try to build lifejacket loaner stations and have them all throughout the state of Nebraska by utilizing this program. So anybody, when you get on there to register your plate, $5 could actually save a life. You can help us buy life jackets, build stations, and get them at lakes all over the state. So we appreciate that. Also, if you can like us on Facebook, Float for Life and Josh the Otter, we would really appreciate it.

JOHNSON: Blake Collingsworth joining me. I'm Dale Johnson, Nebraska Public Media.