Olympic Swimmer Cullen Jones Almost Drowned As a Child; Now Helps Others

Lisa IannucciContributor IDecember 15, 2009

ROME - JULY 31:  Cullen Jones of the United States competes in the Men's 50m Freestyle Heats during the 13th FINA World Championships at the Stadio del Nuoto on July 31, 2009 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Clive Rose/Getty Images

It's winter and you might not have swimming on your mind, but Olympic gold medalist swimmer Cullen Jones does. He is the first African American male to hold a world record in swimming and current American record holder in the 50 freestyle, but he almost drowned as a young child. Today, he's making sure that other kids become confident in the water. He partnered with the USA Swimming Foundation and Make a Splash to launch a nationwide water safety campaign focused on the life-or-death issue of learning to swim. 

Make a Splash educates parents through a national awareness campaign, saves lives by joining forces with grassroots learn-to-swim programs and reaches thousands of children through wide-reaching in-school materials.

Cullen, many parents are afraid of the water, but they want their kids to be good swimmers. Does a parent's fear affect a child?

That's half the battle I'm fighting. Hispanic and African-American parents were often segregated in the 50s and 60s and they weren't given the opportunity to learn how to swim, so their kids don't learn how to swim. Also, learning how to swim is a trust factor. We teach the kids to be comfortable and trust the instructor.

Minority youth are at a much higher risk — African American kids drown at a rate almost three times higher than white kids in similar age groups.  Cullen was recently featured on HBO’s Real Sports on this issue of a “swim gap” and the many factors contributing to these higher rates as well as what he’s doing to try to fix the problem. Nearly 154,000 kids have received lessons through Make a Splash and more than 10,600 have received free lessons.

What happened when you were a kid?

I was five years old and I was at an amusement park on the inner tube ride. I was excited. My dad went on the ride before me and I followed. But I was small on the tube and I flipped upside down. I vividly remember feeling helpless. Even now, as a swimmer, when I have to do sets and hold my breath for training I can almost feel that feeling again when I was in the water. It shocked me a little. I new something bad could happen. My mom said it took me a little time to get comfortable in the water again.

I was in lessons within a week. If parents have fear it doesn't mean you have to project that onto your children. My mom was deathly afraid of the water, but she gave me the tools to be comfortable.Parents want to protect their kids rather than give them the tools.

How hard is it to teach the older kids?

If the older kid had a near drowning experience it’s always harder. They understand what can happen. Teaching a seven-year-old who's fearless is easier, but it's never too late to learn how to swim.

How did you get involved with the program?

When it came out that African-Americans are three times more likely to drown, it became a splash initiative and they needed a face for the initiatives. It was a perfect fit. I see where I could put my footprint in swimming. When I started, we had 79 local partners. We had 124 as of (this interview). When I started there were 77,000 kids involved in the program, now there are 1250,000 kids. Initiative has really taken the nation by storm. We’ll see what happens next year.

In Denver there was this little girl who was deathly afraid to go in, wouldn't even touch the water. By the end of the lessons we gave she was kicking on the kick board and putting her face in the water. She's still learning.

What's your next step for your career?

Next step is London 2012. I work my training around this initiative. Each city, I get into the pool do my training. Heavy training. It's working out okay.

Good luck Cullen!