When he was a kid, Cullen Jones (pictured) almost drowned as a kid at a Pennsylvania water park. Now, after snagging another gold and two silver medals in the London Olympics to go with the gold he won in 2008, there’s no question that Jones he is the most-prominent African-American swimmer in the country.
Jones was narrowly beaten by a Frenchman in his 50m freestyle race at the London Games this summer. But in winning silver, Jones was able to win his first individual medal.
“I gave 100 percent, so I’m happy,” Jones said after the race. “The time wasn’t too bad and I’m thankful that I got second. I was dreaming of gold and I really wanted to get first, but it wasn’t in the cards this time. I’ll have to work with silver. And that’s enough motivation for another four years, I think.”
Even if Jones, 28, decides not to come back for the 2016 Olympics, he’s already in the record books: He’s only the second African American to win an Olympic gold medal in swimming and the only one to hold a record in the sport.
It seems like an unthinkable story for a kid whose mom placed him in swim classes, after he almost drowned at a water park. Jones, just 5 years old at the time, got on an inner tube ride with his parents. His dad instructed him to hold on no matter what.
That meant when the tube overturned and began sinking to the bottom of the pool, Jones was still holding on.
“I remember how it feels to get light-headed and that terrible feeling that you are drowning,” Jones told me in a 2010 interview.
That’s an experience Jones wants to make sure no other kid has. He has worked hard with Make A Splash, an anti-drowning initiative from The USA Swimming Foundation, to teach kids and parents, especially African-American and Latino parents, about the life-saving benefits of learning how to swim.
African-Americans and Latino kids are not at all proficient when it comes to swimming. Seven of 10 African-American kids and six in 10 Latino kids cannot swim. Compare that with 40 percent of Caucasian kids who have low- or- no-swimming ability.
Those statistics are even more alarming when you learn that drowning is the second-leading cause of accidental child deaths; children from non-swimming households are eight times more likely to be at risk from drowning.
But there’s hope.
Participating in formal swim lessons reduces the risk of childhood drowning by 88 percent. There’s also the great fitness benefits that come from a low-impact exercise like swimming.
A survey from USA Swimming found that parental fear was he biggest factor preventing African-American and Latino kids from learning how to swim. For someone like Jones, whose mother enrolled him in swim lessons to protect him from drowning, those numbers just don’t make sense anymore.
“I want kids to [look up] to me,” Jones told Ebony. “I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my culture. That’s why I started working with [the] U.S.A. Swimming Foundation and Phillips 66 with Make A Splash.”
Jones visited 9 cities with the Make A Splash tour in 2012 and details for the 2013 tour are forthcoming.
As for Jones, he’s thinking about the Rio Olympics in 2016.
“I know this is a point in my life where I need to make that decision pretty soon,” Jones told NewsOne this summer. “It’s a big commitment. But we have meets every year, so I get to kind of focus in on something and always have a goal in mind to come and keep myself on track for Rio. I definitely wanna go as an athlete, though.”
And in the meantime, he wants to show kids, especially African-American kids, that they can accomplish things no one ever expected of them.
“What I want them to say in their minds is, “I can do that,” because it [swimming] is something different, you know? I know that we as a people usually think of basketball, track, football. But there are other things that we’re good at. And we just have to be the trailblazer that does it,” Jones said.
For serving as that trailblazer, Jones is the Shine Awards Most Inspiring Story winner.