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Olympic Medalist: Swim Lessons Can Fight the Drowning Epidemic

Swimmer Jessica Hardy may have taken home gold at the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in the 4×100-meter medley relays, but as a child, she suffered a near-drowning incident. That's why the internationally renowned athlete, who is currently training for the 2016 games, is speaking out about how important it is for kids to learn to swim and not fear the water.

"I was 5 years old, at a birthday party with a family friend, and I fell in the pool, in a split second. One of the other parents noticed....They pulled me out of the water. It happened so quickly," Hardy recounted to "I know firsthand how important it is to be water safe. My mom enrolled me in swim lessons the next day."

What happened to Hardy is far from unusual. Drowning is the second leading cause of death among children under the age of 14. About 3,500 people drown each year in the United States.

"It's a huge epidemic that parents need to be aware of. It's a silent killer; it happens in an instant," Hardy says. But, she adds, "It's not an illness that they don't have the cure for yet. It's preventable. It's something you can be proactive about, and that's the best part."

The California native is an ambassador for the USA Swimming Foundation's Make a Splash initiative, which according to Hardy, "Aims to get more kids exposed to being water safe." Make a Splash has already helped enroll 3 million kids in swimming lessons.

"As an Olympic gold medalist, I have a tremendous love for the water...and I'm hoping to share that love with as many kids as possible," Hardy says.

The key is lifelong exposure.

"Swim lessons are recommended as soon as a child can sit up on their own. The younger the better. It only increases their comfort and their awareness," she says.

Babies will learn how to breathe, float, keep their heads above the water, kick, and perhaps most importantly, how to relax.

Hardy offers another startling statistic: "If parents can't swim, there's only a 13 percent chance their kids will be able to swim."

But there shouldn't be any shame for a parent who can't swim. "Swimming at any age is an awesome thing," she says.

The USA Swimming Foundation is a great resource for finding out where swimming lessons are offered in your local community. With about 700 local partners across the country, the organization provides swimming lessons and water safety education for kids and families.

The bottom line: "There's no need to be afraid of the water," says Hardy.