Olympic Gold-Medal Swimmer Who Almost Drowned as a Child Is Devoted to Teaching Kids How to Swim

Olympic gold-medal swimmer Cullen Jones competes in the men’s 50-meter freestyle preliminaries at the Pan American Games July 17, 2015, in Toronto.
DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images
Olympic gold-medal swimmer Cullen Jones competes in the men’s 50-meter freestyle preliminaries at the Pan American Games July 17, 2015, in Toronto.
DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images

Two-time Olympic gold-medal swimmer Cullen Jones almost drowned when he was 5. His parents had taken him to Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Pennsylvania, where he went down a slide into a pool.

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“I flipped upside down, and I hadn’t had lessons, I didn’t know what to do, and I was underwater for about 30 seconds,” Jones tells The Root. “They say if you’re under for 30 seconds, that’s where you can have permanent brain damage in children. Most of the time, at that age they die.

“I believe in irony, because 20 years later, I’m an Olympic gold medalist,” he quipped.

That this irony could have been pure tragedy isn't lost on Jones and drives his current mission to teach children how to swim and be safe in the water.

And even as summer is winding down and the kids head back to school, and it may seem as if the nation will be taking a winter break from the usual water-based activities, the USA Swimming Foundation is still eyeing its rather ambitious goal of teaching 800,000 children how to swim before the year ends.

“Updated numbers from the 725 USA Swimming Foundation Make a Splash partners come in daily, and at this point, the reports show that we are approximately two-thirds of the way toward reaching our goal. With summer obviously being the busiest time of the year, information continues to indicate that we will easily exceed 800,000 children learning to swim through the Make a Splash initiative in 2015,” Scott Leightman, director of communications at the USA Swimming Foundation, says in a statement to The Root.

There’s no off-season when it comes to the facts, and the facts are that many children, particularly children of color, need to learn how to swim.

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“Drowning is the second leading cause of accidental deaths under the age of 14, and it’s only next to car crashes. That’s a very, very high number. It’s an epidemic,” Jones tells The Root. “We have a solution for this and it’s just swim lessons. What we need to do is change people’s perception in thinking, that is, you learn to eat, you learn to walk, you learn to swim. That has to be something that families understand. It is a necessity in the growth of children learning.”

With its Make a Splash Tour, the foundation, along with sponsor Phillips 66, intends to help reduce the risk of drowning by increasing awareness and educating children, parents and communities about the importance of learning how to swim. The initiative has provided swim lessons, so far, to more than 3.3 million children across the nation, and also provided more than $3.6 million in grants for free and reduced-cost swim lessons, particularly to minorities.

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According to a national research study (pdf) by the USA Swimming Foundation and the University of Memphis, 70 percent of African-American children and 60 percent of Latino children reported low swimming skills.  

Jones joined on with the foundation in 2008, after competing in the world-record relay, as his way of “giving back to a sport that’s given me so much,” recognizing what he, as a person of color winning an Olympic gold and breaking a world record, could do to put an end to fatalities due to not knowing how to swim.  

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“Many parents don’t understand that swim lessons are a necessity to allow your child to be near water. Don’t think that the lifeguard is going to be the one that’s going to watch over 500 children. You should be equipping your child with the knowledge of having swim lessons and understanding how to be safer around the water,” he said.

Part of it, he acknowledges, is a generational and cultural problem. Parents who don’t know how to swim and have survived the past 50 or so years don’t see the big deal if their children don’t know how to swim.

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“In the 1950s and 1960s, people of color couldn’t get lessons or they weren’t even able to get to pools. Now, in a new day and new age, people can do that, they can get the lessons, but the generational problem is when parents don’t know how to swim, children don’t learn how to swim,” he pointed out.

Jones again cited the University of Memphis study, which found that only 13 percent of children who came from nonswimming households ever learn how to swim.

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“We have to break the cycle somewhere,” he insisted. “Get yourself into swim lessons, that’s great. There are teachers out there. Get your child into swim lessons so we can break this cycle, because people of color are [three times more likely to die from drowning] than any other race, but it’s not just people of color.

“It’s an American problem. It is a U.S. problem that we can change,” he added.

Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

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