A pleasant, but potentially dangerous, pastime

For as long as I can remember, I have loved to swim.

Many of my earliest memories involve experiences in swimming pools of one type or another. I remember the blue plastic wading pools my mother would set up for me in the little plot of grass next to our front porch. She would sit and watch closely as a splashed about, making sure I took frequent breaks to rest, dry off and have something to eat or drink. My favorite lunch on days when my little swimming pool was set up was a cold hotdog, with ketchup, on a bun.

I also have a vague recollection of swimming in a pool at my Uncle Tommy Compston’s house on Michigan Avenue in Wellston, Ohio. It seems like my dad’s entire family was there and that many of my older cousins were in the water with me. What I recall clearly is that I was placed inside an inflated inner tube, and I kicked my feet as my Uncle Johnny reached over the edge of the pool, which was 4 or 5 feet deep, and pulled the tube with me inside all around the perimeter. I really felt like I was swimming on my own!

I also recall a visit to the public swimming pool in Barnesville with my mother, the late Grace Compston. We stayed in the shallow end of the pool, and I jumped, kicked and splashed all about. I had no fear. Mom, on the other, hand, was obviously tense and uneasy. Not only was she worried about me, but she was not a strong swimmer herself, and she never did become very comfortable around the water.

Those early experiences were followed by several summers of swimming lessons at the pool in Barnesville. I attended with some children I already knew, and I also made new friends there each summer. I learned many different strokes — freestyle, the breaststroke, the backstroke and the butterfly stroke. I learned to dive and turn flips — both forward and backward — from the diving boards. I developed the capacity to hold my breath for quite a while underwater, and I became very capable of treading water for extended periods of time. At one point, I passed the test to become certified as a lifeguard, though I never worked in that capacity.

Learning those skills and gaining that confidence around the water served me well in life. I participated in a community swim team one summer, and I spent a lot of time meeting people and entertaining myself at the swimming pool in Jackson, Ohio, when I visited my mother’s family.

During my teens and 20s, I spent plenty of time at local beaches with friends. We visited Barkcamp State Park, Tappan Lake, Salt Fork and other sites where swimming was allowed. Sometimes when we were dating, my husband Mike and I would rent boats with friends, and I almost always ended up jumping off of them into the water for a quick dip (always with a life vest on, of course).

Swimming is a great form of exercise. It helps people lose weight, and it can improve muscle tone and flexibility. It also improves cardiovascular health. People who enjoy swimming as a pastime or sport also find it very soothing and relaxing, and generally good for their mental health.

But swimming also can be a dangerous activity. Even a strong swimmer can be caught off guard by their circumstances in the water if they are struck by an object, if they overexert themselves or if they become entangled in something they cannot see beneath the surface.

My close friends and I were fortunate to be taught about all these potential hazards at a young age. Although we swam a lot and spent much of our other time fishing or hanging out around strip pits, we knew better than to enter the water at those sites for a swim.

We knew that visibility there was poor, and that trees, boulders and many other hunks of debris could be hiding there. The same can be true of any other body of water that is not designed and maintained as a safe swimming area.

Sadly, it seems that a local resident may have become a victim of that type of circumstance last week.

Ever since Tuesday evening, first responders have been searching for a man they believe drowned in a private lake near Belmont Hills Country Club west of St. Clairsville. The man, identified by friends as 32-year-old Dennis Schmidt of Barnesville, disappeared while picnicking near the body of water with a group of family and friends. Schmidt and another man decided to swim in the lake, and Schmidt disappeared.

Belmont County Sheriff Dave Lucas announced Friday that the search was being suspended for the weekend, to give dive teams and other responders an opportunity to rest. The crew members also hope that giving the lake a break will allow the thick layer of silt on the bottom to settle, which could help to improve visibility beneath the surface. In addition to the silt, extremely thick vegetation has hindered the recovery efforts.

My deepest sympathy goes out to Schmidt’s family and friends. I cannot imagine the pain and anxiety of not knowing for certain what has happened to a loved one. I sincerely hope that first responders are able to give them some answers in the near future.

In the meantime, though, I urge all area residents to think about this tragic situation and to consider ways to avoid similar woes in the future.

Plan summer outings carefully, and make certain that participants who may want to cool off with a swim only enter areas that are designated for that activity. And be sure to educate young people about the invisible hazards that local farm ponds, strip pits, creeks, streams and the Ohio River can contain.