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SHARKs free learn-to-swim program about saving lives

Barb Underhill and Rick Gaetz on hand to help launch local program in memory of their daughter

Barb Underhill and Rick Gaetz are helping make something positive out of the most tragic of circumstances.

Underhill, the Canadian figure skating legend, and her husband Gaetz, co-owner of the Guelph Storm hockey team, lost their 8-month-old twin daughter Stephanie to a tragic swimming pool accident in 1993.

In her memory they started the Stephanie Gaetz Keepsafe Foundation and were the founding sponsors of the Lifesaving Society's Swim To Survive program.

They are also sponsors of the Guelph YMCA-YWCA's SHARKs (Safe Healthy Aquatic Recreation for Kids) learn to swim program, which held a launch event at the Guelph Y on Thursday.

Started in 2004, SHARKs offers free swimming lessons to roughly 3,000 Grade 3 and Grade 5 students at 41 public, Catholic and private elementary schools in Guelph.

"It's a legacy for our daughter," Underhill said, getting emotional at Thursday's event as children learned to swim in the Y pool behind her.

"It's very heartwarming. I look out there and I see those kids out there and you can't imagine how good that makes us feel to know that our daughter's still out there doing wonderful, great things."

The Stephanie Gaetz Keepsafe Foundation is one of many who make the program possible.

"Sometimes things come full circle in life," said Gaetz. "Nice things come out of these things sometimes and our foundation has been a very important part of our family's lives. We generally support quite quietly, we don't generally do this, but this one came full circle and it's near and dear to our hearts."

YMCA-YWCA aquatics supervisor Stephanie Ziegler said the program's aim is to "make sure that kids can swim to survive after they fall in the water.

That means being able to tread water for one minute then swim 50 metres.

"SHARKs is real impact ... this is survival," Ziegler said.

"There's been times I've been teaching at the university and it's the first time somebody has seen a body of water bigger than a bathtub.

"The idea is that kids can swim to survive after they've had a fall in the water, become disoriented, maybe fell off a boat or a dock, then that they have the time to orient themselves by doing that treading and then swim to safety."

The YMCA, partners with the University of Guelph to deliver the program, said that last year 17 per cent of participants who could not pass the standard 'swim to survive' test were able to do so at the end of taking the program.

Guelph Y CEO Geoff Vogt said it is his belief that anyone can learn to swim.

"It is my personal belief that anyone can learn to swim," Vogt said. "It is our hope that we can put to rest, at least in this community, drowning as the second most preventable cause of death for children under 10," Vogt said.