Cullen Jones: On a mission

Published On August 12, 2012 | By Jill Saftel

Cullen Jones now calls the pool “home”, but it wasn’t always that way. Credit: Sam Sharpe-US PRESSWIRE

When watching Cullen Jones race down a center lane of the pool at the Olympic Park Aquatics Centre, the last thing on anyone’s mind is drowning. Yet, the Olympic gold medalist has become invested in fighting a growing epidemic of drowning deaths among African American children.

Jones himself almost drowned as a five-year-old at a water park when his inner tube flipped over during a day of family fun in Pennsylvania and he was stuck under water for 30 seconds.

“I remember what it feels like to be underwater and I remember what it feels like to be helpless,” Jones told NBC’s Rock Center during an interview for a segment on his involvement in eliminating drowning deaths.  “I was underwater, I couldn’t breathe…and then I completely passed out.”

Jones’ mother Debra, unable to swim herself, was left to watch lifeguards try to resuscitate her son. He said his parents told him he was clinically dead, but mouth-to-mouth resuscitation brought Jones back, and no more than a week later Debra had enrolled her son in swimming lessons.

Studies show Jones’ drowning incident isn’t rare. According to USA Swimming, nine people drown in the U.S. every day, with drowning listed as the second leading cause of accidental death among children under 14 years old. Almost six-out-of-10 African American and Hispanic or Latino children are unable to swim, nearly twice the number of Caucasian children unable to swim. In ethnically diverse communities, often in inner city areas, the youth drowning rate is more than double the national average.

Jones was shocked by these numbers, and has joined the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash Initiative. Now, he travels the country telling his own story from near-drowning to Olympic swimmer to minority children in the hopes that the number of minorities able to swim will increase while the number of minority drowning deaths decreases. The initiative educates parents through an awareness campaign and brings swimming to ethically diverse and low-income communities through funding swim programs at little or no cost for children whose families could not otherwise afford them.

It’s commonly assumed that these statistics are a result of a drop in income in many inner city areas, but the real reason shocked Jones.

When University of Memphis Professor Carol Irwin conducted the first-ever study on minorities and swimming, she heard many reasons for why some African Americans don’t know how to swim. From the cost of lessons to access to pools to the worry some African American women have about getting straightened hair wet, Irwin and her team heard it all. What surprised them was the answer they received most frequently, fear of drowning.

“We always thought this was an income thing and then we started talking to more and more people.  It’s the fear aspect.  You have parents that have had traumatic instances in their lives and they project it onto their children and then they treat the water like fire-[it’s] hot, stay away,” Jones told NBC.

For Jones, swimming is much more than a sport. At the London Games, Jones took home two silver medals, one in the 50m freestyle and one in the 4x100m freestyle relay, and a gold in the 4x100m medley relay. Medals aside, Jones sees swimming as a true life skill.

“It is so much bigger,” he told NBC. “You’re saving your child’s life by giving them swim lessons,” he said.

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About The Author

Jill studies journalism at Northeastern University, covers Hockey East for College Hockey News and is the sports editor for The Huntington News. You can follow her on Twitter at @jillsaftel, just don't ask her to choose between hockey and baseball, it's impossible.