Swimming in the cold depths warms hearts and saves lives

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE -

renqi@chi­nadaily.com.cn

The date July 13, 2010, is etched in the mem­ory of Guo Huiren.

It was the day five boys, two of whom were twins, drowned while swimming in the Yongjiang River in the south­ern city of Nan­ning.

“I’ll never for­get it,” the 62-yearold said of the event, which in­spired him to launch a vol­un­teer life­guard ser­vice three days later with friends from the lo­cal win­ter-swimming club, in the hope of pre­vent­ing sim­i­lar tragedies.

Guangxi Red Cross Life-Sav­ing Vol­un­teer Team started with just 10 mem­bers. To­day it has more than 70, mostly re­tirees in their 60s.

“All the life­guards are vol­un­teers, and we’re all ex­pe­ri­enced swim­mers,” said Ou Jian, the team’s cap­tain.

“Ten of us have re­ceived of­fi­cial life­guard cer­tifi­cates from the lo­cal govern­ment. Al­most ev­ery­one on the team has saved peo­ple more than once.”

Guo, one of its most skilled swim­mers, has res­cued about 30 peo­ple. How­ever, this dates back to be­fore the group started; he said his first was in 1983, when he helped save a woman who at­tempted sui­cide by jump­ing into the river.

Most in­ci­dents in­volve young peo­ple or those un­fa­mil­iar with the river and its cur­rents, he said.

“The deep­est part of the swimming area in Yongjiang River is more than 20 me­ters, but near the river­bank it is only 1 meter. This means it is very dan­ger­ous for out­siders, who swim too near to un­der­cur­rents, get pulled out and sud­denly find they don’t have the strength to swim back to the bank.”

Vol­un­teers keep watch dur­ing the day and late into the evening, when swimming be­comes even more haz­ardous.

“We don’t have fig­ures on the num­ber of peo­ple we’ve res­cued,” Ou said, “but we’re ready to give a hand when­ever any­one needs help.”

The team does not re­ceive fi­nan­cial sup­port from the lo­cal govern­ment or busi­ness, with mem­bers rais­ing their own funds.

Also, de­spite in­clud­ing the Red Cross in its name, it is not of­fi­cially af­fil­i­ated with the hu­man­i­tar­ian or­ga­ni­za­tion.

“Our group runs in­de­pen­dently, but we are ver­i­fied by the Red Cross So­ci­ety and it has pro­vided lots of sup­port, such as of­fer­ing train­ing pro­grams said.

In ad­di­tion to pro­vid­ing a life­guard ser­vice, the team also pro­motes safety ed­u­ca­tion. Mem­bers or­ga­nize free lessons on the river­bank for young peo­ple to learn first aid skills, as well as go­ing into schools and com­mu­nity cen­ters to of­fer ad­vice on how to stay safe in and around wa­ter­ways.

Guo said most lo­cal peo­ple who swim in Yongjiang River now reg­u­larly (for vol­un­teers),” Guo use flota­tion de­vices, such as life buoys.

“We call them taga­longs. If the swim­mers en­counter a dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tion, a taga­long can help them sur­vive it,” he said.

“We teach peo­ple use­ful tricks like this, and more im­por­tantly we teach them to not panic, stay calm and main­tain the cor­rect po­si­tion when fac­ing dan­ger.”

Yongjiang River, which runs through the cen­ter of Nan­ning, cap­i­tal of the Guangxi Zhuang au­ton­o­mous re­gion, is a pop­u­lar swimming spot among res­i­dents, es­pe­cially in the colder months.

Win­ter swimming has been grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity along the 133-kilo­me­ter wa­ter­way ever since Chair­man Mao Ze­dong took a dip in Jan­uary 1958 dur­ing a Com­mu­nist Party of China meet­ing in Nan­ning.

The ac­tiv­ity reached a peak dur­ing the “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion” (1966-76), when the lo­cal govern­ment or­ga­nized win­ter-swimming con­tests.

Guan Hong started swimming in the river in 1993 at the be­hest of his fa­ther. “He was se­ri­ously ill at the time and I swam only oc­ca­sion­ally. He per­suaded me to swim ev­ery day, say­ing that stay­ing healthy was the most im­por­tant thing in life,” he said.

The 63-year-old is a mem­ber of the vol­un­teer team and is among those to have re­ceived an of­fi­cial cer­tifi­cate form the re­gional govern­ment.

He be­lieves win­ter swimming is good for the heart and the rest of the body and to prove his point he said that, in 2006, af­ter re­tir­ing, he cy­cled from Nan­ning to the north­ern­most part of the In­ner Mon­go­lia au­ton­o­mous re­gion, the birthplace of his par­ents.

“The whole trip lasted more than 20 days,” Guan said. “When I reached my home­town, all my rel­a­tives were as­ton­ished. If I hadn’t done all that win­ter swimming, I don’t think I’d have been healthy or strong enough to ride such a long dis­tance.”

Zhao Quan, 78, who has been swimming in the Yongjiang River since the 1960s, added: “Win­ter swimming is more than just a sport to Nan­ning peo­ple.”

HUO YAN / CHINA DAILY

Guo Huiren was re­warded by the govern­ment for sav­ing peo­ple.

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