New York — When Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones was five-years old, he swam to a part of the pool he wasn’t supposed to – the deep end. That day he nearly drowned and lost his life. But instead of allowing the fear to engulf him, Jones went ahead and asked his parents to teach him how to swim.
Earlier this year, six African-American teenagers in Shreveport, Louisiana weren’t as lucky. On a day that was supposed to be full of fun, dancing and barbecuing, tragedy struck when six teenagers drowned in the deep 20-30 feet waters of the Louisiana Red River.
When Cullen, who was preparing for his most important swim meet of the year heard the news, he was devastated.
“I couldn’t believe it. Just the mental picture of mothers and fathers crying as they watch their children drown really broke me down,” said Jones.
This tragedy, along with the alarming statistic that nine people drown daily in the U.S. have brought the Olympic gold medalist, U.S.A Swimming, and Conoco Phillips together to bring awareness to this epidemic with the safety campaign, “Make A Splash With Cullen Jones.”
“This is all part of an initiative to implore both children and adults to learn how to swim. It’s a life skill. If you can swim, you can not only navigate the water, but help to save lives,” said Sue Anderson, Director of Programs & Services for USA Swimming.
The campaign, in it’s second year, travels across the country to six major African-American and Latino hubs where swimming rates are low. This year, the tour made stops in Omaha, Washington D.C., Shreveport, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. According to a recent study by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis, 70 percent of Black children and 58 percent of Latino children report low to no swimming ability, putting them at risk of drowning. In addition, African-American children in similar age groups are three times more likely to drown than their white counterparts.
“As an African-American, these numbers are really eye-opening. I knew many of us didn’t know how to swim, but for the numbers to be that high, I knew we had to take serious, quick action,” said Jones.
Sue Anderson, who knew Cullen before the gold medal fame, was proud of the olympian when she saw him wearing his Olympic gold medal in 2008. But her goal is to see more faces like Cullen’s not only standing on that podium, but in Olympic swimming as a whole.
“We want our sport to mirror the population of the US which is so diverse,” said Anderson.
These statistics not only caught the eye of swimming instructors across the country, but energy company Conoco Phillips which has been a partner of USA Swimming for over 30 years.
“As safety is ingrained in our company culture, we felt it was only right to be involved in this program to help protect children,” said Kristi DesJarlais Manager, Global Brand & Community Investment at ConocoPhillips.
Make A Splash has contributed swimming lessons to 563,000 kids in the last three years. Close to 22,000 of them have received free or discounted lessons. Some of those kids belong to PS 3 in New York – where Cullen made a stop last week on his tour – and spoke to the schools children; and then took a dip with five of them at the local YMCA.
“When I first met Cullen, I thought he was a basketball player. When I found out he was a swimmer and was going to teach us how to swim and won in the Olympics, I was excited because I can already play basketball,” said 10 year-old student Drew.
The children who soaked in Cullen’s every word like the swimsuits they were in, learned different swimming techniques, but still wish some of their friends knew how to swim too.
“As much as I’ve learned, I hope to see my friends learn too. Not many of them know how to swim,” said 8 year-old student Nicholas.
While many of the children who accompanied Cullen in the pool were in the middle stages of learning how to swim, many African American children have barely touched the water. When Cullen travels the country and asks children if they want to learn how to swim, many raise their hands. When he asks them if they’ve ever been in the water, the hands go down.
Cullen attributes 3 reasons to why young boys, girls and adults have not bothered.
“Fear, parents, and physical appearance,” said Jones.
“We were rejected from pools for centuries and our history with water isn’t the greatest. Secondly, many of our parents don’t know how to swim, so they don’t really care for their kids to learn either. Lastly, we all love to take care of our skin and hair, but there are things we can do/use to combat those issues. For example, hair, I understand Black women and not wanting their hair to get messed up, but let’s just get braids for a bit and learn how to swim. Then, you can spend your hard-earned money on that weave. “
As the kids continue to learn how to swim at every tour stop, Cullen still finds his mind drifting away to those victims in Shreveport.
“It’s unfortunate that a tragedy had to occur for the community to become proactive about swimming. The goal is to never have this happen again. We want everyone to have this skill,” said Jones.
While he’s been honing the skills of children across the country, Cullen still has a career to focus on; still has to keep his skills sharp. Last year, Cullen qualified for the Olympics and broke an American record in the 50 meter freestyle. But there’s still a lot of training left for the 26-year-old Jersey product with the 2012 Olympic games approaching in London. When asked about his goal for 2012, Cullen answered quickly.
“The goal is gold,” said Jones.
Robert Reid, an African-American swimming instructor in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, counts two gold medals on Cullen’s neck and not just one.
“The work he’s done for our community and our children makes me feel like he’s going for his third gold medal, instead of his second one. This is more important than anything he can ever accomplish as a professional swimmer. He’s not only saving lives, he’s changing lives.”