Her 3-Year-Old Drowned in a Pool; Now, She Teaches Water Safety

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  • Chezik Tsunoda’s 3-year-old, Yori, died after swimming in a friend’s pool.
  • Tsunoda founded No More Under, a nonprofit dedicated to swim safety. 
  • She says all parents should appoint a “water watcher” and learn CPR. 

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Chezik Tsunoda. It has been edited for length and clarity.

In September 2018, I had four boys under the age of 7. Life was full of appointments for the boys, preschool drop-offs, park visits to get their energy out, and making sure everyone was fed on time.

It was a juggle, so I was looking forward to an afternoon at our friend’s house near our home in Washington state. They had a pool and kids of similar ages. The dads were swimming with the children, while I played with the two babies. The other mom was in the kitchen prepping food.

At one point, I looked at my then-husband and asked, “Where’s Yori?” I hadn’t seen our 3-year-old, but I didn’t follow up on my instinct. A few minutes later, my oldest son, who was 6, said, “Yori’s winning the contest for holding his breath the longest.” With those words, our lives turned upside down.

My son was on life support for two weeks

My friend gave Yori CPR, and then I stepped in. When paramedics arrived, they were able to restart his heart, and for two weeks, I clung on to hope — any hope — that my boy would open his eyes. He never did. Finally, we made the decision to take him off life support.

In those first days home without Yori, I dove into research as soon as I put my youngest to sleep. I wondered if there was anything I could have done differently. I learned that drowning is a leading cause of death for children ages 1 through 4.

Now, six years later, I understand the impact. There are families like ours, who have lost a child, and others who have a child with permanent brain damage or other long-term disabilities from drowning incidents. For every fatal accident, there are seven emergency room visits related to downing.

Drowning can happen to anyone, but it impacts certain demographics more. Black children like Yori are more than 2.5 times more likely than their white peers to drown. It makes sense — my grandmothers weren’t allowed to swim in public pools, so it’s little wonder their great-grandchildren are less likely to be comfortable around water.


Chezik Tsunoda with her three sons, smiling and staring at the camera, while outdoors on a sunny day.

Chezik Tsunoda still allows her three living sons to swim, but has taught them water safety.

Photo Credit: Tim Gbunblee



I founded a nonprofit to educate others about water safety

I have four sons, but only three are alive. I use the time that I should be caring for Yori — feeding him, going to parent-teacher conferences, and tucking him in — to educate others about swim safety. I founded No More Under, a nonprofit that aims to prevent drownings by increasing equitable access to swimming lessons.

As we come into the summer season, with its beach days and pool parties, I want parents to see through the false sense of security we have around water. I don’t want to cause fear, but it’s important that we recognize the dangers that come with water play and make sure our behaviors reflect those dangers. Here’s how:

Appoint a water watcher

That day in the pool, I trusted that the dads were watching Yori. But we hadn’t formally appointed anyone to watch the children. Now, I tell families to designate a water watcher — someone whose entire job is to have their eyes on kids in the pool (not on a book, phone, or friend who you’re chatting with). Consider having a badge or other identifying item so there’s no confusion about who is on duty.

Teach kids to respect the water

We teach our children the dangers of roads or strangers, and we need to instill the same respect for water. I never want children to be afraid of water, but I want them to know it can be dangerous, and that they should take precautions. Tell little ones to never get in the water — even the bath — without telling an adult. Remind older children to never, ever swim alone.

Reach, throw, don’t go

We all know stop, drop, and roll, but you’re more likely to experience a drowning event than a fire. That’s why I use the phrase, “reach, throw, don’t go.” When someone is drowning, reach toward them, throw them a flotation device, but — unless it’s a very small child — don’t go to them. A drowning person is panicking and can easily bring you under, too. Teach your kids to reach, throw, don’t go. Then, practice the steps.

Stick with swim lessons

Just weeks before Yori drowned, he tried swimming lessons and hated them. So, like lots of parents, I didn’t push it. I figured we had time. I’ll always wonder if lessons would have made a difference. Find a qualified instructor who can help your child feel comfortable and safe in the water.

Use life jackets

The day Yori died, I had pulled back into our driveway to get his life jacket. But he wasn’t wearing it when he drowned. Keep flotation devices on even when kids aren’t actively in the water, and use them until your child is a very confident swimmer.

Learn CPR

I still question whether I did CPR right on Yori. I urge every parent or caregiver to learn CPR, because it could save a child’s life this summer.

Know where you’re swimming

I knew how to get to my friend’s house, but I didn’t know her address to give to 911. Always know the address where you are, whether it’s a friend’s house or a public beach. Remember, every second counts for first responders.

This summer, my three living sons will enjoy pools and beaches. I’ll do my best to share their joy, despite my trauma, but I’ll be doing it with an awareness and caution I wish I’d had six years ago.

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