real life

Olympian Elka Whalan: The day my daughter almost drowned

This Olympic hero had taught her kids to swim, so she was stunned to find herself diving into a pool after her sinking daughter

Former Olympic swimmer Elka Whalan and husband Thomas have six Olympics between them and a lifetime of being in the water. The last thing they expected was to almost lose their daughter to drowning.

As parents, our natural instinct when we hear about terrible things happening to children is to wonder, “How did they let this happen”. We never think it will happen to us, but all too often it does.

My name is Elka Whalan and I am married to former Olympic water polo player Thomas Whalan. We have two beautiful children, Nevada, 3 and Edison, 22 months. I’m pregnant with our third child.

Being in the water is our profession and a natural day-to-day activity for our family. We have always practiced water safety with our children, so you can imagine our surprise when our firstborn fell head first into a backyard pool and sank to the bottom like a stone, dressed in a pink tutu, ballet slippers and two messy but cute, lopsided pigtails.

Nevada at swimming school

Just minutes before, our precious Nevada had asked to touch the water to see if it was warm. We were at my inlaws home. They have a large fence around their pool.

We were in the house when Nevada made her request so I walked her out to the pool, unlatched the gate and walked her in. As she knelt down to feel the water I was right behind her.

I looked away for just a moment, enough time to ask my husband if our son was okay inside the house. In that 1.7 seconds, Nevada lost her balance and fell straight in.

Without a moments thought for my inappropriate swimming gear - tight jeans that would become heavy when wet, a very pregnant belly and my new suede red shoes - I jumped straight into the pool, swam right to the bottom and lifted her up. When I surfaced I screamed and Thomas and his father ran out.

Thomas grabbed her from me and tried to get her to take a breath. She vomited some water before saying, "I fell in and I just did a big burp Daddy". We all laughed that hysterical laugh that happens when intense fear is mixed in with intense relief.

I only looked away for a split second.

We're professional swimmers, we've brought home medals for our country, and we almost lost our daughter to drowning.

Nevada had lost her balance in the act of feeling the water and I had been the supposed responsible parent who was with her. You hear all the time "Never take your eyes off them, even for a second". I now know this to be true.


We immediately enrolled both our children into swimming school and are happy to say that she's a natural. Within nine weeks she went from a bubble with four floaties on her back to confidently swimming with no floatation devices at all. We are always in the pool with both our toddlers and Edison swims freely with two bubbles on his back. He is a silent sinker though and will easily go underwater and forget to call out help. Nevada lets us know when she is tired and we don't take our eyes of them, even for a split second.

All children are different and we've learned ours have different ways of expressing when they need help in the water and it is our role to know what their language is. Nevada will often say, "The water is very heavy"'and whilst its super cute we know this is her way of saying she is getting tired in the water.

Every child near water needs one adult devoted to their care. If there are five children you need five adults. That's the rule we've now adopted and anyone who is with us knows the new poolside rules of Team Whalan. With the recent drownings and tragedies happening in our country over this summer it has to open your eyes up even more to please realise you are not immune to this happening to you.

I read these heartbreaking stories and I pray for the parents who have to go to sleep at night with one less child under their roof and to know they cannot turn back the clock. How they deal with this heartbreak is unfathomable. I wouldn't know where to start.

Please be smart, safe and have your FULL attention when you go to the beach, a pool or any water arena with children. Your eyes and ears have to be switched on not 90% but 110%.

Teach your children basic water safety like blowing bubbles, knowing how to hold their breath and how to hang on to the side of a pool. These are basics you yourselves can teach and find a great swim school that suits them and not the mums around you.

I don't believe there is a right age for children to learn how to swim. Water safety and awareness is the first step. We gave both our bubs showers from when they were newborns so they could experience water falling on their face and head. We taught them not to be scared of the water but cautious and not too curious.

Splashing around is their summer childhood and this should be the case for all Aussie toddlers and Children but please make sure your children know how to float, the basic and most importantly be there with them!

What water safety rules do you follow?

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