Unthinkable tragedy leads to hope, safety for Tri-Cities families

Matthew Lane • Apr 7, 2019 at 8:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Nicole and Jonathan Hughes experienced an unthinkable tragedy last year, one most parents fear, but probably don’t think it’ll ever happen to them.

Their 3-year-old son, Levi, drowned. It happened at a familiar place, a beach house they go to every year with friends. The family was done with swimming for the day and was eating dinner. The room was filled with plenty of people, many of them physicians.

“I wasn’t drinking or on the phone,” Nicole said. “I turned to close a bag of Cheetos, walked out on the balcony ... In that moment (Levi) got out the door, down the stairs and I found him in the pool.”

It happened that quickly.

About a week later, the Hugheses learned that drowning is the No. 1 cause of death for kids ages 1 to 4 and that almost 70 percent of children in that age range who drown do so when they’re not expected to be swimming.

Nicole then reached out to the American Academy of Pediatrics about its recommendations for swim lessons for kids. Originally, the AAP recommended lessons begin at age 4. Today, the new policy says children should learn at age 1 and even mentions “self-rescue swim lessons.”

“You can’t just decide to teach them when they’re 4,” Hughes said. “(Drownings) happen to real people and it happens in seconds. I believe with certainty, these survival swim lessons would have saved (Levi’s) life.”


Everyone knows about traditional swim lessons, but chances are most parents aren’t familiar with “self-rescue swim lessons.” Lisa King, a Florida resident and swim instructor since 1987, has been working in the Tri-Cities in recent weeks to educate parents about them.

The lessons are taught by certified instructors from the Infant Swimming Resource — a program founded in 1966 by Dr. Harvey Barnett. ISR is the global leader in providing survival swimming lessons for infants and young children, with more than 600 instructors worldwide in 20 countries.

“We’re just bringing the program here, and it’s my personal endeavor to develop an ISR in Tennessee as much as I can,” King said. “There’s been a lot of attention and a hyper-awareness because of some of the drowning accidents (in the Tri-Cities) last year. So many parents have been waiting for this program to come here.”

King is one of the ISR instructors who travels around the country and works to expand the program by training future instructors. She’s been in the Tri-Cities for more than a month, training two local women — Joni Davis and Jennifer Mason — who contacted the ISR and wanted to help educate parents in light of the recent drownings in our area.

“The program is going really well. There’s been a lot of interest in it and everyone is excited about it,” said Rachel Evans, the aquatic director at the Memorial Park Community Center in Johnson City, where King has been holding ISR classes and training sessions. “It’s amazing to watch the progression (in the infants) from the first day of not doing anything, to how they can flip over on their back on their own.”


According to King, the ISR program teaches different swimming and water safety skills based on a child’s age. For toddlers up to age 6, instructors teach a swim-float-swim program.

However, for infants up to 12 months old, the program doesn’t focus on swimming. Rather it teaches infants breath control and how to roll over on their backs when they find themselves in the water. The lessons only last seven to 10 minutes a day, but children takes these lessons five days a week for up to six weeks.

“We start with a minimum amount of time underwater and they receive signals so they know they’re going underwater,” King explained. “The first submersion will be for half a second, then we keep building on it. We want their eyes open, mouth closed, good breath-holding, and then they continue to do it because it works for them.”

Eventually, when the infant’s face gets wet, they roll immediately to their back because that’s their safety, King added.

“If they fall into a body of water, chances are they’re not going to be able to get themselves out,” King said. “We don’t want them wasting time trying to get somewhere, when they could get to safety and wait for someone to come and get them.”

Amber Koonce of Johnson City heard about the program through Hughes and her posts on social media about the drownings in our area last summer. It was then she decided her 2-year-old daughter Constance needed to have ISR lessons.

“After I heard about the lessons, I signed her up immediately, I wanted to make sure Constance had those lessons,” Koonce said. “She’s enjoyed it. She’s had to overcome obstacles, but she’s learned a lot and gained self-confidence. I feel more comfortable that she has these skills.”