Olympic Champions Help Give Coachella Valley Children Swimming Lessons & Water Safety Training

By Kira Golden

Steve Little, founder of Swim to Win, says he likes to start with the end in mind. “I figure out what my goal is and work backward from there.” With regards to his non-profit organization, his end goal has always been to stop kids from dying in swimming pools. “I want to change the face of correctable drowning deaths and injuries in the Coachella Valley, and beyond that, the world. The simple fact is that in 2014, the drowning rate, compared to the national average, was 5.3 times higher here in the Valley. We lost thirteen babies and five adults between Beaumont and Mecca in 2014. That statistic is just completely reprehensible. And there was a day when I realized, wait a minute—I have the skills, the resources, and the passion to do something about this.”

Little was born and raised here in the Coachella Valley. He spent four and a half years as a commissioned linguistics officer in the Army, and then pursued his education at USC, gaining his Master’s in Organic Chemistry and swimming competitively throughout his time there. After graduating, he moved back to the Coachella Valley and started a swimming pool business called CLARO Pools. “Ten years of complacency existed, where I just accepted that people drowned and died, and I never knew why I was here. I mean, I donated to National Drowning Prevention, I donated to the Red Cross—it was always important to me, but I never understood my ‘why.’”

That all changed in May of 2012 at the Palm Desert Aquatic Center. Little was teaching his then 6 year-old daughter how to swim butterfly stroke when he witnessed something that lit a spark inside of him. “I watched a father, in jest, push his daughter into the pool. And I saw this little girl, maybe four or five years old, as she fell, her face just awash with fear. And I knew at that moment, that I could change that.” Little knew he had the ability to take away the fear of the water and reduce the drowning rate—all he needed to do was teach kids how to swim.

Little attended USC with Janet Evans, who is an Olympic Gold Medalist many times over and held world records in three different events. They’d stayed in contact over the years, and worked together on various USA Swimming functions, so he called her that very day, sitting on the deck of the pool, and told her all about his idea. “She basically told me I was insane,” Little remembers, laughing. “But that just made my resistance to failure build up, and I told her, ‘No, we can do this.’” Through Evans’ connection with other Olympians, they were able to get Rowdy Gaines on board, and Swim to Win was born.

The first swim clinic occurred May of 2013. It was attended by six Olympians. “We had no money, no sponsors, no budget, no marketing money, the City of Palm Desert thought I was nuts,” Little chuckles. “But we put together this clinic and 2,000 kids showed up. And with those 2,000 kids came their parents. It was the most well attended clinic USA Swimming had ever heard of. That sealed it in my mind—that there are lots of children out there who want to learn to swim, but there are financial and physical obstacles and barriers that prevent them from learning, and I can do something about it. So we doubled down.” The second clinic was held was May of 2014 and was attended by ten Olympic swimmers, and 3,000 kids showed up. This year, the clinic will be held this coming Saturday, May 23rd, and there are fifteen Olympians set to attend, who will be assisting Steve Little in teaching basic water safety and swim techniques for free. Next year, he is shooting for 20-25 Olympians.

With the growth of the clinic, it became clear to Little that they were going to need a fundraiser. Previously, Little had funded the vast majority out of his own pocket, but with the clinic getting bigger and bigger every year, and Little wanting to obtain his larger goal—ensuring that every child in the Coachella Valley has access to clean, healthy water, and knows how to swim—he felt it was time to get serious about raising money for the cause. He happens to be friends with Dave Bray, the lead singer of Madison Rising, and after paying him a visit in New York, the band agreed to come down for a benefit concert.

The concert will be held at Aqua Caliente Casino, but getting such a prestigious venue required some creative thinking on Little’s part. He impressed the management first by doing the Desert Woman’s Show with them. “I got Aaron Piersol, the king of backstroke, to show up in this hall for the Desert Woman’s Show, in just a speedo with his gold medals on. We had quite the buzz at my table. And the management thought, ‘Who the heck is this guy, who gets an Olympian to do this?’” And so he pled his case with them, but they told him it was up to the Indian Tribal Council. But Little’s passion for his cause is not to be underestimated. After speaking to the Indian Tribal Council, they agreed to sponsor it and donate the show to his cause. They also agreed to provide all technical support for free, as well as pay for all the Olympian’s hotel rooms and food. Little said the concert has the potential to raise $200,000 for his cause, and also hinted at big plans for a benefit event next year.

The Swim to Win Benefit Concert, featuring Madison Rising, is Friday May 22nd at 9PM and will be celebrating America, in honor of Memorial Day Weekend, and will be attended by local police, firefighters, first-responders, Marines, and of course, the invited Olympians. Tickets are still for sale via startickets.com and if you visit swimtowin.org, there’s still time to sign up for the swim clinic on May 23rd.