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How This Olympian Is Saving African-American Children From Drowning

A study reveals nearly 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Hispanic children have poor swimming abilities

Cullen Jones is in his Charlotte, N.C., home, yelling at the television.

It’s August 11, the day of the women’s 100-meter freestyle final at the Rio Games, and Jones is shouting words of encouragement at American swimmer Simone Manuel as she strokes furiously toward the wall in a pool some 4,700 miles away. Jones, a four-time Olympic swimming medalist himself, isn’t just pulling for his friend. He knows there is more at stake than another gold medal for the United States.

When Manuel finished in a tie for first with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak, she became the first black woman to win an individual Olympic gold in swimming. The 6-foot-5 Jones was thrilled. “I literally jumped up from my seat,” he tells GOOD, “and nearly broke my ceiling fan.”

Cullen Jones with one of his gold medals (image via Cullen Jones/Twitter).

Jones knew that Manuel’s victory would help him achieve what has become one of his life’s goals: disproving the stereotype that blacks are genetically poor swimmers. Manuel’s gold may have inspired untold numbers of black kids to head for the pool, but long before that, Jones and other former Olympic swimmers of African-American heritage—including Maritza Correia McClendon, Anthony Ervin, and Lia Neal—were working to raise the frighteningly low percentage of black children who are proficient in the water.

According to a 2010 study by the USA Swimming Foundation, 70 percent of African-American kids have low or no swimming ability. Through USA Swimming’s Make a Splash program, Jones, 32, and other elite swimmers have traveled to more than 40 cities around the country, giving free lessons and promoting water safety. According to the foundation, the Make a Splash tour and its associated local partner program have combined to provide swimming lessons to more than four million children.

Nowhere are those lessons needed more than in the black community. Though Jones would love to uncover the next great swimmer of any race or ethnicity, he’s focused on making sure that as many African-American children as possible learn the skills to be safe in the water. “Job No. 1,” he says, “is to save lives.”

Cullen Jones at a Make a Splash event (image via USA Swimming Foundation).

The memory of nearly drowning as a child fuels Jones’ sense of mission.

When Jones was 5 years old, his parents took him to a water park in Allentown, Pa., where he jumped on an inner tube and took off down a slide into a splash pool. But when he hit the water, the tube flipped and plunged Jones beneath the surface. “I had never had swim lessons, so I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “I was just under the water, holding on to the tube, panicked.”

The next thing Jones knew, a lifeguard was resuscitating him. He was told later that he had been under the water for about 30 seconds and had lost consciousness before he was pulled out, but he was too young to realize that he had survived a close brush with death. “My first thought was, ‘What’s the next ride?’” he says.

His parents’ first thought was to get him swimming lessons, which Ronald and Debra Jones quickly did. Cullen didn’t take to swimming immediately—it took three different instructors before he finally was comfortable in the water—but he eventually reached the point where he not only could get across a pool, but could do it faster than anyone else around him.

In 2006, nearly two decades after the near-drowning incident, Jones became the second swimmer of African-American heritage to set a world record when he swam on the U.S. 400-meter freestyle relay team at the Pan Pacific Championships. He then was part of the gold-medal winning 400 relay team at the 2008 Summer Olympics. Four years later, Jones won a silver medal in the 50-meter freestyle at the London Games, as well as a gold and a silver in relays.

But Jones, who failed to qualify in the 50 free for the Rio Games and has yet to decide whether he will retire, never has forgotten how he nearly became another drowning statistic. “There’s no reason why every child shouldn’t learn to swim,” he says. “Just like you wouldn’t allow your kids to ride in a car without a seatbelt, you shouldn’t let them grow up and get in the water without swimming lessons. It’s not about winning gold medals or setting records. It’s about learning a life-saving skill.”

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Just like you wouldn’t allow your kids to ride in a car without a seatbelt, you shouldn’t let them grow up and get in the water without swimming lessons.[/quote]

The lack of swimming proficiency among African-Americans is tied to the history of racial discrimination in the U.S. For decades, black people were denied access to segregated community pools and rarely had the resources to build private ones. Compounding the problem, non-swimmers tend to raise non-swimmers, since parents are unable to teach their own children and less likely to seek lessons for them.

Jones also feels the need to combat stereotypes that suggest some genetic explanation for blacks allegedly being poor swimmers. He offers himself as living proof that the obstacles to swimming for African-Americans are more cultural, historical, and psychological than physical. Now Manuel has bolstered that argument. “You can’t understate the importance of what Simone did,” he says. “She has given young girls the belief that they can do the same thing, that they don’t have to fear the water or feel out of place at a pool, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

The hope is that efforts like Make a Splash will help bring an end to tragedies like the one Jones remembers from 2010. He was preparing to teach a swimming class when he heard the news that six black teenagers had drowned in Shreveport, La., trying to save one another in a river. None of the teens knew how to swim.

“I was devastated by that,” he says. Shortly after, he took the Make a Splash program to Shreveport, where he gave a free lesson to the children, many of whom were friends of the teens who drowned. When the lesson began, many of the grieving kids were terrified of the water, he remembers, “but by the end, they were all jumping in and blowing bubbles.”

As they floated on the surface of the water, the kids were symbols of what Jones has been trying to prove—that with the right amount of training and self-confidence, an entire group can succeed rather than becoming a drowning statistic.

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