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Olympic athletics legend John Walker considers giving every South Auckland child a chance to learn to swim is "almost certainly my last race".

The 1976 Olympic 1500m gold medallist - who has Parkinson's Disease - last year started his "Find Your Field of Dreams" project.

The project involves schools in the Manukau area giving free learn-to-swim programmes for all Year 3 pupils, free after-school sports programmes, working with sports clubs and providing recreational activities and night-time sports at local parks.

Eight months after the project started, more than 6000 students have enjoyed seven free swimming lessons at their local pool each week - a saving of up to $100 a week a child over private lessons.

And this year, up to 6300 more children will benefit from the programme as it extends to include Year 4 students.

Mr Walker, who is a Manurewa councillor, says extending the programme will give more and greater benefits.

"What we want to do is get children to swim at least 100m. If we can save one life then we've achieved something."

Figures issued yesterday show 96 people drowned last year - the lowest number since records began in 1980.

Mr Walker hopes that free swimming lessons and access to pools mean a greater chance of children becoming good swimmers and gaining skills that could one day save a life.

"One drowning is one too many - there's no excuse for drownings. When 50 per cent of the population can't swim, that's bad."

Mr Walker has an ally in the Manukau City Council, which has provided free public access to all pools in the city since 1974.

Up to $7 million of ratepayers' money a year goes towards running the district's swimming facilities.

Co-ordinated by the council's Manukau Leisure Services group and sponsored by the Lion Foundation, the $250,000 learn-to-swim project will mean that up to 14,000 children should know how to swim by year's end.

Free buses will transport youngsters from about 70 schools to pools in Manurewa, Otara, Papatoetoe, Pakuranga and Mangere each week, where trained instructors will provide their services free of charge.

Manukau Leisure Services chief executive Brett Jude said feedback from teachers, parents and children had been overwhelmingly positive.

Mr Jude said moves to expand the project had already started.

"Ultimately, we'd like to see the programme extended to include Year 5 students and including a river and coastline programme too," he said.

"We can then get them [the children] to be confident in the pool and then take them out into the real environment - because the pool is a controlled environment and the sea is not. We want kids to be confident in all types of water."

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