Branson drowning poses questions about international students' water safety

Saturday, July 9, 2011 | 7:23 p.m. CDT; updated 3:10 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 11, 2011
Yanli Yang practices swimming under the instruction of Jing Han. She has tried to learn swimming several times before but failed. "She still needs to conquer the fear of water." said Jing.

COLUMBIA— On July 2 in Branson, Meng Fanjun and his wife Zhang Chunyang told friends they were going for a swim.

They never returned.

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The Friendship Association of Chinese Students and Scholars is raising funds to help the families of Meng Fanjun and Zhang Chunyang travel to the United States for memorial services. The association said the families are experiencing financial difficulties.

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Columbia, MO 65205


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The couple, both researchers from the MU School of Medicine, drowned in a hotel pool shortly after midnight.

EMTs tried CPR to revive the couple but were unsuccessful. Police said there were no signs of foul play or intoxication.

The couple's ability to swim, however, remains a question.

The accident brings to light a potential safety issue involving international students and families who come from areas with inadequate water safety education and few opportunities for swim lessons.

Last June, a man from the Democratic Republic of Congo drowned at Stephens Lake. The year before, Chinese doctoral student, Wei Yirui, almost died after she was found at the bottom of the swimming pool at Tara Apartments.

Police said at the time that Wei had just learned to swim.

Lesa Beamer, Wei's thesis adviser in the biochemistry department, said she talked to several dozen international students while visiting Wei in the hospital and found that most did not know how to swim.

“I was really surprised,” Beamer said. “In the place I grew up, almost all kids know how to swim. You just assumed all people know that.”

Last month, a Canadian study found that newcomers to the country, especially those who had arrived within the past five years, are at higher risk for drowning when boating and swimming.

Immigrants to Canada are over four times more likely to be unable to swim than those born in Canada, according to the report released by Lifesaving Society, a nonprofit organization that trains swimmers to be lifeguards.

Similarly in the U.S., a study published in American Journal of Public Health in 2006,  found foreign-born males had an increased risk for drowning compared with American-born males.

As of fall 2010, nearly 1,700 international students were studying at MU. The city has a foreign-born population of more than 7,000, according to 2005-2009 American Community Survey released by U.S. Census Bureau.

After Wei's accident, Beamer said she was saddened when she read Internet comments critical of the student's swimming skills.

“Many of them were saying how stupid you could be when you don't know how to swim. But that is not the fact,” Beamer said. “People just don't understand how this happened. In many other countries there are few opportunities to learn to swim.”

In China, for example, few schools can afford swimming pools. Public swimming pools are also scarce, even in big cities.

The lack of safe swimming facilities and water safety education for both parents and children has led to high rate of water-related deaths in the last decade.  More than 30,000 children from age 0 to 14 drowned each year from 2000-2005, according to official Chinese statistics.

Parents are also reluctant to allow their children to learn to swim.

Research conducted in 2007 in Chengdu, a city with a population larger than Los Angeles, found only one-fifth of elementary and middle-school students could swim, while more than half had never jumped into water.

David Currey, assistant director of MU’s International Center, declined to comment about the possibility of providing water safety education during student orientation.

“All I can say is the university, in response, will do everything it can to continue trying to provide health and safety information that will meet the needs of international students,” Currey said.

Beamer said it might be helpful to make international students aware of the drowning incidents.

“Sometimes you don’t think about it when you see a nice swimming pool. You just want to have fun and jump in, and it actually can be dangerous,” she said.

On Friday afternoon, Han Jing, a former professional swimmer and a graduate student at MU, was helping two of her friends learn to swim at MizzouRec.

“I feel it is more difficult to teach adults than children,” Han said. "They are heavier, and they get too nervous.”

Han was trying to calm her friends, allowing them to hold her hands while using their legs to kick.

“Take a deep breath and relax,” she told them.

Yanli Yang, who was wearing a flotation belt, was finally able to make progress after choking some water. She did not learn to swim as a child, Yanli said, because her mother was worried about her safety.

"As I grow up, I'm getting even more scared of water," Yanli said. 

Two years after her near-drowning accident, Wei is recovering quite well, Beamer said.

“She has come back here, and she seems quite determined,” she said. “Wei survived, but this couple sadly did not. It is a tragedy.”

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Larry Li July 10, 2011 | 1:18 a.m.

"The couple's ability to swim, however, remains a question." This line seems rather irreverent when discussing two people who have just lost their lives. Is there a purpose to highlighting some Canadian study and the number of international students at MU other than to have Americans assume that all foreigners are at risk when swimming? I understand that this article might be well-intentioned, but some of it just comes off as offensive and looking down on foreigners.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 10, 2011 | 9:09 a.m.

It may come as a shock to some journalists but there are more than a few native-born Americans who have neither the ability to swim nor any sense of water safety.

An interesting sidelight. At one time, and at least as late as the early 1950s, a requirement for BS graduation from one public university campus here in Missouri was to have taken (as PE) and passed basic swimming. Those already Red Cross certified were allowed to waive the requirement. Maybe we should re-instate that requirement. Sounds far more realistic than using passports as floatation devices.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 11, 2011 | 5:44 a.m.

Okay, in May right here in University of Missouri System a tragic auto accident* occurred in which four international students (all from India) were killed and a fifth student was critically injured. The driver crossed a center line on MO 42 (a lousy highway) at 11:42 on a Sunday morning and collided with a truck. An AP story appeared in this newspaper.

Should we then conclude that international students have lesser driving skills than domestic students and install a requirement that they must all take drivers education?

*-Probably the worst auto accident ever involving students from the campus in question.

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock July 12, 2011 | 12:12 p.m.

Now now Ellis requiring somebody from a foreign country to be able to read English and drive would be un American. They must be given every right to kill themselves and others on the road. (sarcasm)

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 12, 2011 | 1:25 p.m.

As you say, your post is intended to be sarcastic, but I raised an eyebrow over the "be able to read English" portion of the remark. (Driver's education might well have merit.)

Most international students at U. S. universities and technical institutes, including ours, are required to have reasonable reading proficiency in English in order to be admitted. It is embarrassing that some have better English language skills than some native born Americans do. :(

Accepting a person seriously deficient in English comprehension would be tantamount to taking their money (tuition, board, other fees) under false pretenses, and we know University of Missouri System would never do that.

(Report Comment)
J Keller July 15, 2011 | 4:15 a.m.

Focus on the facts, please.
In the hotel where this tragedy took place, what kind of security measures was in place?
Was there any lifeguard around the pool or any sign around indicating that guests are at their own risk?

(Report Comment)
Anne Christnovich July 26, 2011 | 9:27 a.m.

Although we don't know the cause of death in the situation of Meng Fanjun and Zhang Chunyang, nor the background of the men in the above article, this link does explain how one non-swimmer trying to save another can end up in tragedy.

The fact that video surveillance over the pool was available is chilling and incredibly telling.

Anne Christnovich
Columbia Missourian Assistant City Editor

(Report Comment)

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