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Loyola Maryland's Cara Egan founded Junior H2Ounds to teach drowning prevention and open opportunities

To get to the Loyola Maryland Fitness and Aquatic Center from Tunbridge Public Charter School or Govans Elementary School, head down York Road toward Woodbourne Avenue. Pass the ACE Cash Express, then turn right. At the end of the street that becomes Homeland Avenue, you'll see the center, straight ahead.

The trip is walkable, about a mile in distance. But MapQuest cannot account for the chasm in culture.

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"It's kind of crazy, because on one side of York Road, none of the kids have swam," said Cara Egan, a Loyola University Maryland senior on the women's swimming and diving team. "And on the other side of York Road, we have these beautiful pools."

On a recent Wednesday night, about 20 students from the elementary and middle schools, all girls, hurried out of a locker room inside Loyola's Mangione Aquatic Center. They wore loud swimsuits — hot pink and polka dot and electric green. Their excitement was similarly deafening.

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"One, two, three, eyes on me!" Egan shouted on the pool deck, the group of schoolchildren and some Greyhounds teammates around her. "One, two, eyes on you!" the girls, now standing at attention, called back.

They were here, about to wade into 3 feet, 6 inches of chlorinated water, because of Junior H2Ounds, a drowning-prevention program Egan founded in 2014 to help bridge this particular opportunity gap in North Baltimore.

The idea came to Egan after one of the Greyhounds' annual retreats. The Rev. Timothy Brown, assistant to the school's president for mission integration, urged the team to connect with its community through swimming.

Egan thought of her own connections to the sport, and of how they had shaped her. Her whole family swims. Everyone she knew during her childhood in Connecticut knew how to swim. There were "certain opportunities you just took for granted," she said, "because everyone just expected to have them."

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Egan's grandfather was a high school swimming instructor and physical-education teacher, and she heard stories about students' drowning deaths. That such tragedy was possible surprised her. It moved her. She decided she would offer free swimming lessons in her community. Hearing Brown's plea in her sophomore year, she resolved to do more.

"Everyone acts like they can swim, especially past a certain age," she said. "And that's why drownings happen: Because people are convinced that it can't be that hard, and they really don't have any skills."

About 10 people die from unintentional drowning every day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, two are children 14 or younger.

A childhood without pool time? Edwina M. Gray of Baltimore, a special-education teacher and coordinator with the Angels in Disguise mentoring program, can't imagine it. She was about 5 or 6 when she learned to swim, and at City College High competed on the school team as a freshman and sophomore.

Growing up, come every summer, Gray would walk to the community pool at 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. For the next two hours, she would race her friends and laugh and have the time of her life. The facility closed early, so when she could sneak away from her grandmother late at night, she'd reunite with her pool pals. She had a curfew, but some of her friends would stay past midnight.

Gray, sitting poolside as some of her Angels in Disguise made short bursts across the single lane set aside for Junior H2Ounds, explains that she did not wait long to bring her own daughters to the pool. She wants them to enjoy what she did. But that can be difficult.

"Honestly, growing up in the area and living in the area, it's only one community pool," she said. "So to be quite honest with you, I don't even know if these girls would really have the opportunity if it had not been offered to them."

When Loyola sophomore Jaime Knippenberg's pupils tell her they want to learn how to swim laps across the pool, she reminds them that they must start small.

The level of comfort in the 45-minute sessions varies from girl to girl — some skim across the water on kickboards, while others hesitate to dip their heads underwater — and on this day, Knippenberg is treated to an in-pool showcase of fashionable dance moves ("Dabbing, whipping, hitting the quan"). In the past two years, Egan said, only one swimmer has graduated from the shallow end. Still, this lesson, and each of the several that follow, is a step forward.

"Most of them haven't seen a pool," Knippenberg said. "Even stepping foot in this building and being able to touch the water is progress in itself."

Sondra Malone is 12, and perhaps a future program poster child. She likes coming to Loyola because she can go to the pool with her friends. When the program's over, she wants to help people herself. And one day, she said, she'd like to be a lifeguard.

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