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Compulsory swimming should not be rocking the boat

China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-03-28 10:23

It's great news our colleague Yao Yao reports that Tsinghua University is requiring BA candidates to pass a swimming test before they get their degree.

Starting in September, freshmen either pass a swimming test or take lessons and learn how to get through the water without sinking before the end of their four years, or else.

Chronic health conditions, skin disease or hydrophobia - diagnosed by medical staff - are the only exceptions.

The test is 50 meters, two lengths of a standard lap pool, with any stroke - breaststroke, butterfly, back or Australian crawl, otherwise known as freestyle.

In all fairness they should throw in dog paddle, as it is what any non-swimmer defaults to in a panic when thrown into the deep end.

Another stroke that should be allowed is sidestroke, a variation of which - Combat Swimmers Stroke - is used by US Navy SEALS, along with breaststroke, to master the art of coursing through the water with stealth, not breaking the surface, no splish-splashing.

By the way, telling a beginner swimmer to feel free to swim butterfly to pass their proficiency is like telling them to feel free to bench press 500 pounds for their strength test. Butterfly is not only impossible, but people regularly drown trying to learn it.

When I got my BA degree, the main extracurricular skills required were Frisbee, eight-ball pool, poker and darts (301, to be exact), activities that also "do less harm to joints and muscles," as Liu Bo, Tsinghua's head of Sports Science and Physical Education, says about swimming. They also allow participants to keep hydrated with their favorite electrolyte-laden beverage while practicing.

Liu also calls swimming "a requisite survival skill" that will stay with graduates for the rest of their lives. In line with that thinking, maybe MBA students should be required to pass a golf proficiency, let's say to a double-bogey standard - respectable without being embarrassing. Math PhDs should master chess.

Swimming as a must for students to earn their degrees, Yao tells us, is nothing new at China's top university.

"As early as 90 years ago, Tsinghua University required that students could not graduate from the university or study overseas if they could not swim, though the requirement didn't work later on since the swimming pools at the campus could not accommodate increasing number of students," said Liu.

In 17th century England "a swimming test" was used for an entirely different and heinous purpose - to determine whether or not a woman was a witch. The notorious Matthew Hopkins (1620-1647) was responsible for the deaths of 300 women, many of whom were proven to be witches because when they were thrown into the water, they floated. (In the end, Hopkins was subjected to his own test, flunked and was dealt with accordingly).

Michael Massimino, a NASA astronaut from 1996 to 2014 who flew in space twice and now teaches engineering at Columbia University in New York, told a reporter from the Hindu that when he finally got accepted to the astronaut program (after three rejections) the acceptance letter told him, somewhat ominously, to practice his swimming because he would be required to pass a "water survival test."

Of all the myriad tests and screenings and interviews he had been through, no one had ever mentioned swimming or ever asked him if he even knew how to swim. He hated the water and hated swimming, but he wasn't going to let it get between him and his goal of flying in space.

He practiced through the summer with his children and then reported with 43 others to Johnson Space Center in Houston. The first test was the swimming test. The trainers immediately indentified the good swimmers and the bad and separated them.

"You strong swimmers and you weak swimmers are going to work together," a NASA instructor told them, "and you strong swimmers are going to get the weak swimmers ready to pass the test."

It took Massimino three tries but he did. And when he got out of the water, he said, "I had this great feeling of accomplishment. I felt like a super hero."

Contact the writer at chrisdavis@chinadailyusa.com.

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