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This Black History Month, we honor the GAME CHANGERS: Everyday heroes whose actions make life better for the people around them. SEE ALL OUR GAME CHANGERS HERE


Cullen Jones

Age: 27

Place of Residence:

Why he is a local hero: Jones is working to make sure African-American and Latino kids learn how to swim in an effort to save lives.

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It’s hard to believe that the first Black man to win an Olympic gold medal for swimming and only the second Black man to compete in swimming for an Olympic team almost drowned when he was 5 years old.

But it’s true.

Jones was out for a family fun day with his parents at a Pennsylvania water park, when a giant inner tube that he rode down a slide in with his parents overturned in the water. Listening to his father’s instructions, he held on to the tube and found himself at the bottom of the pool with his life slipping away. He had to be resusitated.

“I remember how it feels to get lightheaded and that terrible feeling that you are drowning,” he told me in an interview in 2010.

Luckily, Jones’ father was able to pull him to safety. Soon after, his mother enrolled him in swimming lessons. Fresh off his 2008 record-setting performance at the Olympics, where he won a gold medal as part of the 4×100 relay team, Jones became even more focused on Make a Splash. Founded by  The USA Swimming Foundation, the anti-drowning initiative teaches kids how to swim.

Sadly, it is desperately needed in the African-American community. A study from USA Swimming found that 70 percent of African Americans do not know how to swim. Approximately 58 percent of Latino kids also don’ t know how to swim. Only 40 percent of Caucasian kids are in the same predicament. And of the Black kids who know how to swim, 40 percent did not take lessons.

As it turns out, parental fear — not lack of access or money — is the biggest obstacle to Black and Latino kids learning how to swim. The consequences of not knowing in this case can be death.

“There is a simple solution and that’s swim lessons. Parents need to make it a priority for their children to learn to swim. Any body of water can be dangerous without proper instruction. Swimming is a fun activity, learn to swim,” Jones said earlier this year.

Jones is not just some celebrity pitchman. He’s in the pool with the kids. And he has answers for all the reasons kids give for not swimming. Chlorine damaging skin, not true. Ashy? Use lotion. Worried about your hair? Get a good swim cap.

“I really try to preach that it’s a life skill to send your kids to the pool for lessons. You wouldn’t allow your child in a car without a seat belt or to play football without a helmet. We have to make this a priority,” Jones says.

Now Jones is preparing once again for the 2012 Olympics. He has the potential to reach the status of a Tiger Woods or Serena and Venus Williams with another stellar performance. Still, Jones hasn’t forgotten about his focus on saving lives.

“It feels good to know I’m doing something,” he said during a recent visit to Florida. “Hopefully, it’s a butterfly effect. Maybe one day you’ll teach a child to learn how to swim, and they’ll teach someone else, and it will keep going like that until we see change.”


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